shadow

What Tillerson's firing means: Three questions

It’s no surprise that President Trump decided to part ways with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The change raises larger questions about the administration’s approach to foreign policy – and the stability of the cabinet.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson turns to leave after a media opportunity with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj at the State Department in Washington on Dec. 1, 2017. Trump ousted Rex Tillerson as secretary of state Tuesday, making a surprise Twitter announcement that he’s naming CIA director Mike Pompeo to replace him.
Carolyn Kaster/AP
|
Caption

President Trump’s announcement Tuesday that he has fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and will nominate current CIA Director Mike Pompeo as Mr. Tillerson’s replacement, was far from unexpected.

In some ways, the relationship between Mr. Trump and Tillerson could be described as a chronicle of a firing foretold. The two men never seemed to click on a personal level, and Tillerson differed with his boss on many major diplomatic issues, from the placement of the US Embassy in Jerusalem to the withdrawal of the US from the Paris climate accords to how to deal with North Korea and its unpredictable leader Kim Jong-un.

Some news outlets were predicting Tillerson’s imminent departure as early as last November. Like a stopped clock finally showing the correct time when it comes around, that prediction has at last come true.

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Mar. 13, 2018, to travel to Andrews Air Force Base, Md. Trump is beginning a two day trip to California and St. Louis. Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday and said he would nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him, in a major staff reshuffle just as Trump dives into high-stakes talks with North Korea.
Andrew Harnik/AP
|
Caption

But Tillerson’s departure raises as many questions as it answers. Here are some that stand out:

Will Foggy Bottom and the White House now speak with one voice?

The obvious policy differences between Tillerson and Trump were confusing to America’s allies, who never knew which person to listen to, the blustery Tweeter-in-Chief or the soothing diplomat who seemed to exemplify continuity. As recently as Monday night, Tillerson issued a strong statement condemning the alleged attack by Russia on a former Russian spy living in Britain, after White House spokesman Sarah Sanders had declined to link Russia to the crime.

Mr. Pompeo, at the CIA, has been much more deft about making his statements line up with Trumpian policy. Will that coordination be maintained on a larger stage? That might involve more breaks with traditional US diplomatic positions.

What happens to the State Department reorganization?

Tillerson was unpopular with the rank and file, due to his austere, withdrawn presence, and to his plans to decimate State Department employment in the name of efficiency. His decision to end the practice of the US government hiring the spouses of foreign service officers overseas was particularly unpopular with many lower-level diplomats.

Will Pompeo, if confirmed, keep Tillerson’s reductions? That’s a question many are asking in Foggy Bottom this morning.

What does this mean for Trump’s cabinet and White House staff?

Trump has denied that his White House is chaotic, but the dismissal of his State Department chief can only add to that perception. There is talk that the president wants to finally free himself from aides who try to hold his hand, and run things the way he wants to. If that’s true, Tillerson’s exit might presage the replacement of others, up to Chief of Staff John Kelly.

The cabinet in particular seems dysfunctional at the moment. Many members are immersed in mini-scandals of their own, from HUD Chief Ben Carson’s purchase of an overly expensive dining set and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's reported $139,000 tab for office doors, to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her policy stumbles in a “60 Minutes” interview on Sunday night. In that context, Tillerson seemed an island of restraint. But the fact that Trump did not believe the secretary of State had his back appears to have doomed him in the end.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.