The ax finally fell on Rex Tillerson. The Washington Post reports that Donald Trump fired his Secretary of State and has already named his replacement:
President Trump has ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replaced him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, orchestrating a major change to his national security team amid delicate negotiations with North Korea, White House officials said Tuesday.
Trump last Friday asked Tillerson to step aside, and the embattled top diplomat cut short his trip to Africa on Monday to return to Washington.
Pompeo will replace him at the State Department, and Gina Hapsel — the deputy director at the CIA — will succeed him at the CIA, becoming the first woman to run the spy agency, if confirmed.
Give Tillerson credit for lasting a lot longer than many had predicted. Rumors had swirled for months that Trump had grown unhappy with his first Secretary of State, but somehow the former ExxonMobil chair managed to outlast several White House figures. Tillerson’s run came to a screeching halt on Friday, although the news didn’t leak out until a few minutes ago.
Trump certainly sounded cheery just minutes after the news went out:
Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2018
It’s a notable but perhaps understandable time for a shake-up on the nat-sec team. Put in Godfather terms, perhaps Trump didn’t think of the corporate exec as a wartime consigliere, a point which the upcoming negotiations with North Korea would make more acute. Pompeo has plenty of experience in the intelligence arena, and that will undoubtedly be crucial to any success in those talks.
It might be a signal that Trump wants to get tougher with Russia too. That would make this last conversation with the press as Secretary of State even more ironic. On his way back to the US, Tillerson went much farther than the White House did on the nerve-agent attack on Sergei Skripal. He corroborated Theresa May’s conclusion that the poison almost certainly came from Russian labs and that Russia should expect a response from the UK for the attack:
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson cast the poisoning of an ex-spy in Britain as part of a “certain unleashing of activity” by Russia that the United States is struggling to understand. He warned that the poisoning would “certainly trigger a response.”
Tillerson, echoing the British government’s finger-pointing toward Moscow, said he didn’t yet know whether Russia’s government knew of the attack with a military-grade nerve agent, but that one way or another, “it came from Russia.” He said it was “almost beyond comprehension” why a state actor would deploy such a dangerous substance in a public place in a foreign country where others could be exposed.
“I cannot understand why anyone would take such an action. But this is a substance that is known to us and does not exist widely,” Tillerson told reporters as he flew from Nigeria to Washington. “It is only in the hands of a very, very limited number of parties.”
Tillerson, in what seems clearly a valediction in retrospect, also told reporters that all attempts to improve relations with Russia had come to naught. The US and other Western nations should realize that Putin seems determined to remain aggressive and antagonistic:
Tillerson, who spoke Monday by phone with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, said he’s grown “extremely concerned” about Russia, noting that he spent most of the first year of the Trump administration trying to solve problems and narrow differences with the Kremlin. He said after a year of trying, “we didn’t get very far.”
“Instead what we’ve seen is a pivot on their part to be more aggressive,” Tillerson said. “And this is very, very concerning to me and others that there seems to be a certain unleashing of activity that we don’t fully understand what the objective behind that is.”
The acute question now will be whether the Senate will hold up Pompeo’s confirmation. He’s already been confirmed once and has performed well at the CIA, so it should flow relatively smoothly, but it’s also an election year. Senate Democrats will demand lots and lots of answers on Russian collusion in the 2016 election and whether intelligence agencies have been aggressive in confronting Russian meddling in this cycle too. It’ll be brief but memorable, and that may well have been why Trump waited this long to drop the ax on Tillerson.
Longer term, one has to wonder whether Pompeo will take State in a significantly different direction. Tillerson had dragged his heels on appointments to key positions; there are still dozens of ambassadorial positions open, including to key nations like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and South Korea, not to mention other political appointments within State. Pompeo will have a better grip on the need to fill the political appointments while cutting down on the career positions and shrinking the bureaucracy where it can be shrunk. Expect to see a different State Department in the next few months.
Update: Philip Klein notes another difference made in this change:
Pompeo is fiercely oppsed to Iran deal, which Tillerson was fighting to preserve.
— Philip Klein (@philipaklein) March 13, 2018
REXIT could be IRAXIT, although our Western allies will have something to say about that too.
Update: CBS reports that Trump didn’t tell Tillerson until this morning:
CBS News’ Kylie Atwood reports that Tillerson was leaving his Africa trip early to return back to Washington to talk with Mr. Trump and connect on developments in North Korea, which he was largely left out of as the White House announced it would be taking up talks with the regime sometime in May.
CBS News’ Margaret Brennan adds that the Secretary had not yet spoken with the president and found out about news of his ouster when the public did. Brennan adds that Tillerson had every intention of staying due to the critical progress in national security.
That seems a little difficult to credit, although it’s possible. Tillerson only just happened to be coming back when Trump was ready to announce his successor? Maaaaaybeeee.
Update: AP reports that not only was it a surprise, Trump didn’t offer any explanation for the move:
BREAKING: Tillerson aide: Trump never explained to Tillerson reason he was fired, and Tillerson had wanted to stay in job.
— The Associated Press (@AP) March 13, 2018
NBC reports that Tillerson didn’t even get a call from Trump:
BREAKING: US State Dept. says that Tillerson “did not speak to the President and is unaware of the reason” for his ouster, “but he is grateful for the opportunity to serve, and still believes strongly that public service is a noble calling.” – @Abs_NBC
— NBC News (@NBCNews) March 13, 2018
Yikes. Looks like this was a surprise, although it can’t have been a shock after working for Trump more than a year. CNN reports that the move was in the works for months and that Trump never forgave Tillerson for the “moron” remark:
President Trump has wanted Mike Pompeo as his secretary of state for months now — and the White House began planning for him to take this job last fall.
Trump’s anger at Tillerson after it leaked that he called him “a moron” never subsided, and many in the White House saw their differences as irreconcilable. …
Sources close to the President say it was clear Tillerson didn’t support Trump. They say Tillerson wanted to handle foreign policy his own way, without the President. Trump didn’t feel that Tillerson backed him, source says.
The biggest difference, CNN reported in a separate tweet, was on Iran.
Update: To extend the Godfather references, it looks like this was personal and not business, Sonny:
BREAKING: Trump says he made decision to oust secretary of state `by myself,’ says Tillerson will be `much happier now’ .
— The Associated Press (@AP) March 13, 2018
“I think Rex [Tillerson] will be much happier now. But I appreciate his service. But with Mike [Pompeo] we’ve had a very good chemistry right from the beginning,” Pres. Trump says on sudden firing of Tillerson, who will be replaced by Pompeo as Secretary of State. pic.twitter.com/KJw77YxNdW
— CBS News (@CBSNews) March 13, 2018
Update: Trump claims that he and Tillerson have discussed the change “for some time,” but says their differences on the Iran deal was the catalyst. He and Pompeo share the same views on it, plus Trump cites Pompeo’s “tremendous energy” as something he needs in a Secretary of State:
President Trump praises nominee to replace Rex Tillerson, Mike Pompeo: “we’re always on the same wavelength.”
“Rex and I have been talking about this for a long time, we got along actually quite well, but we disagreed on things.” pic.twitter.com/4U1m8AbovQ
— MSNBC (@MSNBC) March 13, 2018
Trump clearly had had enough of Tillerson, for one reason or another.