Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired this morning (Tuesday) by Donald Trump. Trump’s manner of communicating the dismissal was via Twitter around 8:44 a.m. Eastern Time. .
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
The State Department issued an official statement regarding the firing, which Under Secretary Steve Goldstein’s comments issued through the press office makes fairly clear – was not something Tillerson had anticipated:
“The Secretary had every intention of remaining because of the tangible progress made on critical national security issues. The Secretary did not speak to the President this morning and is unaware of the reason, but he is grateful for the opportunity to serve, and still believes strongly that public service is a noble calling and not to be regretted.”
Tillerson himself, told reporters that he did not learn of Trump’s decision until 3 hours after Trump’s tweet was posted. Goldstein was fired along with Tillerson, reportedly for not following the official White House script regarding the firing of Tillerson. He was the 4th highest ranking official at State and a Trump appointee confirmed unanimously by the Senate.
Part of Tillerson’s comments regarding his firing included a general statement of which there were implications hidden in plain sight. “What is most important is to ensure an orderly and smooth transition during a time that the country continues to face significant policy and national security challenges.”
This can be interpreted as a veiled criticism of the firing itself and the upheaval and turmoil that Trump has precipitated in his serial dismissals and forced resignations of key cabinet officials and White House staff. Tillerson thanked the American people, his State Department staff and the agency’s broader network of international diplomats. Tillerson, however, had nothing to say about Donald Trump, whom he was reported to have called a “fu**king moron” in a private conference of national security officials meeting in July of last year.
Beyond Trump’s tweet, Trump, in response to reporters at the White House, said that he respected Tillerson’s “intellect” and that he “got along well with Rex”, adding that, “I think Rex will be much happier now.” That statement, is interpreted by many as actually meaning that Trump will be much happier with a yes man in charge of State.
Various news outlets are reporting that many long time State Department staffers are not entirely grief stricken at Tillerson’s departure. Politico quotes Brett Bruen, a former State Department official as stating that “The last year has been traumatic to put it mildly. It was as though ‘T-Rex’ stomped through Foggy Bottom devouring staff and structures.”
Such sentiments have emerged from the department in previous months, having much to do with a collective feeling that State has been underfunded and understaffed during Tillerson’s tenure.
Much is being discussed in Washington about what was behind the termination of Tillerson and what the effect will be ongoing in the demonstrable disintegration of the Trump administration.
Regarding Tillerson’s dismissal, it is widely believed to have been a direct result of Tillerson forthrightly supporting U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s declaration yesterday, that Russia’s fingerprints have been discovered to be all over the attempt to assassinate former Russian intelligence agent, Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia in Salisbury, England. Tillerson, the Guardian reports, spoke to the foreign secretary on Monday afternoon, and had told reporters the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal “clearly came from Russia” and would have consequences.
Trump did not want to directly respond to the British government’s declaration, preferring to dance around the issue, with Sarah Huckabee-Sanders, the White House Press Secretary, equivocating about Russia and refusing to even name them.
“We’ve been monitoring the incident closely, take it very seriously,” Sanders said. “The use of a highly lethal nerve agent against U.K. citizens on U.K. soil is an outrage. The attack was reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible. We offer the fullest condemnation.”
But this statement was confronted by one reporter, asking, “So you’re not saying that Russia was behind this?” Sanders dodged, “Right now, we are standing with our U.K. ally,” Sanders said again. “I think they’re still working through even some of the details of that.” Sanders was unrelenting in her unwillingness to refer to Russia in context of the attack.
Tillerson had earlier issued frank assessments of Russia, which reportedly caused Trump a great deal of consternation. He (Tillerson), recently commented that:
“much work remains to respond to the troubling behavior and actions on the part of the Russian government. Russia must assess carefully as to how its actions are in the best interest of the Russian people and of the world more broadly. Continuing on their current trajectory is likely to lead to greater isolation on their party, a situation which is not in any one’s interest.”
Former CIA director John Brennan has also pointed out Trump’s reticence to respond to Russian provocations, even when earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin conducted a very pointed presentation boasting about new powerful offensive weapons and missile capabilities intended to threaten Russia’s enemies. “When I hear what Vladimir Putin was saying about the nuclear capabilities he has [and] then the president of the United States is tweeting about Alec Baldwin … I mean, where is your sense of priorities? I think a lot of Americans are looking at what’s happening with a sense of, ‘This is surreal’.”
Trump had also expected Tillerson to rubber stamp his views on the Iran nuclear agreement and was perturbed when Tillerson contradicted him on the subject. Trump, adding to his assessment of why he dismissed Tillerson, said, “When you look at the Iran deal: I think it’s terrible, I guess he thinks it was OK. I wanted to break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently.”
During Tillerson’s entire term at the State Department, Trump has undercut the Secretary on policy statements and openly contradicted him on numerous occasions. “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump wrote on Twitter last year, employing a juvenile term to refer to the North Korean leader.
Trump has put CIA Director Mike Pompeo up for submission to be confirmed by the Senate as Tillerson’s replacement. Pompeo’s deputy at the CIA, Gina Haspel, has been named to fill Pompeo’s role as head of the spy agency.
Markets reacted unfavorably to Trump’s move – as did a host of other Washington observers. “Pompeo is known to be a real hawk on trade and foreign policy,” said Jim Awad, senior managing director at Hartland & Co in New York. “There’s nobody to be a check and balance on Trump. It’s been unsettling to the market within the context of what we see now in the economy, which is a favorable backdrop.”
Reuters quotes Evans Revere, a former senior U.S. diplomat who dealt with North Korea under President George W. Bush, as saying that Trump’s handling of the Tillerson firing and the timing, sends “a bad signal about the role of diplomacy.” Revere added that, “Tillerson’s replacement by … Pompeo, who is known as a political partisan and an opponent of the Iran agreement, raises the prospect of the collapse of that deal, and increases the possibility that the administration might soon face not one, but two nuclear crises.”
Some are speculating that the underlying motive behind Trump’s move to fire Tillerson, might be more than merely dismissing a subordinate who would not echo Trump’s ever swerving policy pronouncements.
Senator Ben Cardin, D-Md., told reporters that he was deeply concerned that Trump clearing out everyone that would not give Trump honest appraisals of Trump’s dizzyingly inconsistent foreign policy instincts. “It is disturbing to see such a high-level change in our diplomatic team as negotiations with North Korea move into a new and delicate stage.”
Trump may have pushed Tillerson out, because he intends to scuttle the diplomatic initiative with North Korea, including the recent White House announcement of a summit meeting with North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-Un.