An emboldened Trump axes Tillerson
Beginning a major shake-up of his Cabinet, President Trump this week ousted Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and nominated CIA Director Mike Pompeo to succeed him. Tillerson, who feuded with the president during his 14-month tenure at Foggy Bottom and once was quoted as calling him “a f---ing moron,” learned of his dismissal when Trump tweeted that he was being replaced. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly called the former Exxon Mobil CEO last Friday to warn that the president wasn’t happy with him, but didn’t go into specifics. Explaining his decision, Trump insisted he “got along well” with Tillerson, but said they weren’t “thinking the same” on the Iran nuclear deal and other key foreign-policy issues. In his farewell speech, a somber Tillerson did not thank or even mention the president by name. Pompeo, a hawk on Iran, has forged a close rapport with Trump during frequent intelligence briefings. To replace Pompeo at the CIA, Trump selected Deputy Director Gina Haspel, a controversial figure who participated in the agency’s “harsh interrogation” program during the Bush administration. Both appointments require Senate confirmation.
Trump suggested further personnel changes were likely, saying he was “very close to having the Cabinet” he wanted. Several reports named national security adviser H.R. McMaster as next on the chopping block; the president was also said to be considering replacing Kelly, whom he finds too controlling, and his scandal-laden Veterans Affairs secretary, David Shulkin.
What the editorials said
“Tillerson deserved better than the shabby way he was fired,” said The Wall Street Journal. But he had to go. His efforts to “reorganize the State Department” destroyed morale at Foggy Bottom and led to a stampede of staff departures; dozens of important positions remain vacant, including “key ambassadorships” in South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Tillerson’s “larger problem,” though, was that he disagreed with Trump on almost every major policy issue: He was against scrapping the Iran deal, supported staying in the Paris climate agreement, and opposed moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. That was just not sustainable.
Tillerson was at least a “moderating influence” on our ignorant president, said the Los Angeles Times. The same can’t be said for Pompeo, a Trump sycophant and partisan Republican. Haspel’s ascension at the CIA is no less worrying, said The New York Times. After 9/11, the veteran intelligence operative “played a direct role” in the spy agency’s infamous “extraordinary rendition” program, running a “black site” in Thailand where terror suspects were brutally tortured. She later ordered the destruction of videotapes of these often fruitless and shameful interrogations.
What the columnists said
What the columnists said For a diplomat, Tillerson wasn’t very diplomatic, said Susan Glasser in Politico.com. The haughty former corporate executive “feuded with fellow Cabinet members, clashed with White House staff,” ignored Congress, and openly disdained the press. Unwilling to hide his many disagreements with Trump—even refusing to deny he called Trump a “moron”—Tillerson found himself “comically out of the loop.” Many foreign officials treated him as irrelevant.
The timing of this firing is curious, said David Frum in TheAtlantic.com. Only hours before Trump canned him, Tillerson strongly denounced Russia over the attempted nerve-gas assassination of a former spy in Britain. Given the president’s mysterious habit of refusing to challenge or offend Moscow, could this have been his real “motive”? More likely, Trump was thinking about his upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said Marc Thiessen in The Washington Post. Tillerson undermined Trump by “begging” Kim for negotiations rather than pushing the “hard-line” stance that produced the breakthrough. Ahead of his “biggest diplomatic gamble,” Trump wants a “trusted adviser at State.”
“The Trump presidency is entering a new phase,” said Gabriel Sherman in VanityFair.com. Increasingly comfortable in the job, the president “is feeling liberated to act on his impulses.” We saw it with his unexpected announcements on trade tariffs and North Korea; now he wants to surround himself with staff who won’t restrain, resist, or undermine him. Trump, in short, is returning to campaign mode—and preparing to “go full MAGA.”