US president Donald J. Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with a single Tweet on Tuesday afternoon, ending months of speculation about the fraught relationship between the two.
According to Trump’s Tweet, CIA Director Mike Pompeo will replace Tillerson at the end of March, clearing the table ahead of tough negotiations with North Korea.
“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!” Tweeted Trump on Tuesday.
According to an announcement issued by the White House, Pompeo will be replaced by Haspel, the Deputy Director of the CIA, becoming the Central Intelligence Agency’s first-ever female director. In the wake of the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks, Haspel ran one of the CIA’s ‘black sites’ in Thailand where Al-Qaeda’s head of intelligence and Osama Bin Laden‘s top lieutenant Abu Zubaydah was tortured using waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques.
Republican Senator John McCain, who was himself a prisoner of war tortured by his North Vietnamese captors, reminded Haspel that she would “need to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program during the confirmation process,” adding, “The torture of detainees in US custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history.”
Rumours of Tillerson’s ouster have swirled for months after a series of public clashes with Trump over the direction of the White House’s often chaotic foreign policy positions. The tension between Trump and Tillerson appears to have come to a head in July when the latter walked out of a meeting in the Oval Office and called Trump “a moron” after the president expressed his wish to expand the US’ nuclear arsenal,
Stories that he was ready to tender his resignation have dogged Tillerson since the incident in July. He had been regarded as both an unconventional and controversial pick to be Trump’s top diplomat, Tillerson had no prior government experience, but had served as the long-time CEO of ExxonMobil prior to his becoming Secretary of State in February 2017.
Many establishment foreign policy veterans, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and ex-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, originally applauded Tillerson’s appointment, saying he would be one of “the adults in the room” who could offset Trump’s erratic behaviour and penchant for conspiracy theories.
Due to his years as the head of Exxon, Tillerson’s nomination was originally applauded in Russia, where he’d established a warm working relationship with President Vladimir Putin, but the early enthusiasm in Moscow and the concern in Washington that he would be seen as soft of Russia quickly disappeared as Tillerson asserted himself as one of the Trump administration’s harshest critics of the Kremlin.
He failed, however, to establish any kind of rapport with Trump and found himself isolated by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and by isolationist ideologues like Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, both of who were considered to have had Trump’s ear on all foreign policy issues prior to Bannon’s departure late last summer.
His tumultuous tenure at the State Department has been widely ridiculed by both the left and the right, with both accusing Tillerson of being an abysmal failure for leaving hundreds of key positions in the State Department vacant after going on a concerted effort to root out inefficiency, but without any clear plan of how to overhaul the US’ diplomatic corps.
Tillerson was on an official tour of Africa when Trump unexpectedly announced his intention to negotiate directly with North Korea, a position that Tillerson vehemently opposed. Tillerson and Trump also had public spats over including Russia’s election hacking, 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, a dispute among Persian Gulf countries, and the Paris climate accord.
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly – whose own future in the administration is in question after clashing with Kushner and Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump – reportedly informed Tillerson on March 10 that Trump planned to replace him, but gave no indication as to exactly when he would be removed.
In a surprise move on Tuesday morning, Trump’s Tweet that he would remove Tillerson in favour of Pompeo – who is considered ideologically closer to Trump and appears to be a decidedly more political choice than the unorthodox Tillerson – caught the diplomatic world and the Washington establishment by surprise, least of whom was Tillerson, himself, who did not personally speak to Trump about his firing until hours after the Tweet was first posted.
Trump claimed that he personally liked Tillerson, but that the two were not in synch on nearly every issue.
In his farewell remarks, however, a visibly shaken Tillerson indicated that the decision came as a surprise while he thanked his State Department staff and the American people for the opportunity to serve them. The one name noticeably missing from Tillerson’s brief farewell speech was Trump’s. Tillerson mentioned Trump only once, saying he’d “received a phone call from President of the United States a little after noontime from Air Force One” to talk about his dismissal.
In a major public break with Trump, Tillerson forcibly called out Russia in his closing remarks telling reporters “much work remains to respond to the troubling behaviour and actions on the part of the Russian government,” adding, “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.”
Such a demonstrative break by a Secretary of State with the Oval Office is nearly unheard of, particularly under the current circumstances and at a time when two rival nations are at the forefront of the foreign policy agenda.
Trump also appears to have sacked his longtime personal assistant John McEntee, who, according to the Wall Street Journal, is currently under investigation by the Department of Homeland Security for financial crimes.
McEntee was escorted from the White House without being allowed to collect his personal belongings, including his jacket, the WSJ reported.
As news of Tillerson’s firing and the removal of McEntee from Trump’s list of advisors hit the headlines, rumours are circling that John Bolton, the ultra-hawkish former ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush, could take over as National Security Advisor for the embattled H.R. McMaster, whom Trump has frequently clashed with over sharp policy and personnel differences.
McMaster – who took over for Trump’s disgraced former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn after Flynn admitted to lying about being paid by the Russian and Turkish governments during his confirmation hearing – has been in Trump’s crosshairs for weeks as the two have grown further apart over how to respond to Moscow’ s cyber-war against the United States and whether the US government should negotiate directly with North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un.
If McMaster is the next to depart the White House, he will join Tillerson as the fourth senior member of the Oval Office inner circle to be shown the door in the last two weeks.
Trump’s Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, the president’s top economic adviser, resigned last week after a bitter dispute with Trump over stiff protectionist tariffs on steel and aluminium imports. Hope Hicks, Trump’s communications director and another longtime confidante, resigned two weeks ago.
The burn rate of senior officials in Trump’s administration is unprecedented in American political history and has hit a critical level with 37 of Trump’s closest confidants and cabinet members having been fired or forced to resign in the 15 months since his inauguration.