Concerning the State Department today, there’s good news and bad news.
The good news is that Rex Tillerson, the ultra-wealthy former Exxon Mobil CEO who’s been called “the worst Secretary of State in living memory,” is out, fired via Twitter by President Trump, after presiding over a 14-month-long gutting of the department. During his tenure, as Rolling Stone reported last August, Tillerson gutted the organization, drove countless experienced diplomats to the exits, and failed to oppose draconian budget cuts demanded by the White House that further threatened to eviscerate the State Department’s power.
The bad news is also that Tillerson is out, to be replaced by current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, a blustering hawk in sync with Trump’s worst instincts for confrontation and go-it-alone risk-taking in global affairs. Despite his record of incompetence and his failure to consult regularly with the department’s veteran diplomats and foreign policy experts, Tillerson at least acted as one of the few “adults” in the Trump administration, serving as a restraint of sorts on issues from the Paris climate change accord to the nuclear accord with Iran to the showdown over North Korea.
The firing was hardly a surprise. It’s been widely known for many months that Trump and Tillerson didn’t get along and that they had major disagreements on a wide range of issues. Indeed, as Rolling Stone noted in early December, the Tillerson-to-Pompeo switch was rumored as long ago as last fall. But Tillerson’s ouster today was particularly ignominious. Though he was reportedly warned last Friday by John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, that his tenure would soon come to an end, Tillerson only learned that in fact he’d been fired today when he learned of the president’s tweet during a visit to Africa.
“It is clear that Tillerson was an incredibly ineffective Secretary of State,” says Max Bergmann, a fellow at the Center for American Progress who served for six years at the State Department during the Obama administration. “He had fairly conventional views, which puts him at odds with Trump’s more radical inclinations,” Bergmann tells Rolling Stone. “Tillerson clearly had little influence on the White House, a poor relationship with Trump, and was barely present on the international stage. While Tillerson may have been a voice of some sanity, he also set about gutting the State Department and put a lie to the notion that government needs good businessmen to run it.”
But Bergmann worries that Pompeo, who now faces what promises to be a contentious confirmation hearing in the Senate, will make things worse.
“Pompeo clearly clicks with the President, which is many ways is very concerning,” says Bergmann. “His radically hawkish views mean the United States could be heading down a very dangerous path with North Korea and Iran.”
In a brief, noise-filled news conference with reporters, Trump was frank about admitting that he and Tillerson had significant differences on Iran in particular. “We disagreed on things,” said Trump, shouting to be heard over background noise. “Look at the Iran deal. I think it’s terrible. I guess he – it was OK. I wanted to either break it or do something. And he felt a little bit differently.”
In fact, Trump has promised to tear up the U.S.-Iran agreement, an Obama-negotiated accord signed in 2015 that successfully blocked Iran from pursuing a path toward nuclear arms, in May. It’s a deadline, artificially created by the president, that could upend the agreement and put the United States and Iran once again on a course toward military confrontation. “Pompeo will enable Trump’s worst ideological instincts on issues like the Iran nuclear deal,” Colin Kahl, former national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, tells Rolling Stone. “This move is occurring against the backdrop of an impending North Korea summit, talks with the Europeans on saving the Iran deal, the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and managing the geopolitical fallout over steel and aluminum tariffs. North Korea could be particularly problematic given the gamble Trump is taking to meet with Kim Jong Un, the lack of a North Korea envoy and the absence of a U.S. ambassador to South Korea, and Tillerson’s role in overseeing outreach to Pyongyang and Beijing. So, it isn’t a great time to fire the Secretary of State.”
On many of those issues, Tillerson tried to anchor Trump in the world of fact-based reality. On Iran, over the past several months, Tillerson joined a shrinking, moderate chorus of voices inside the administration urging the president to stick with the deal, whereas Pompeo has long been a strident voice against the Iran accord. On climate change, despite his track record as the longtime CEO of one of the world’s biggest producers of fossil fuels, Tillerson unsuccessfully tried to persuade Trump not to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, to which virtually all of the world’s nations subscribe – whereas Pompeo, a former member of Congress from Kansas, has long been close to the radical-right, Kansas-based Koch brothers, staunch opponents of the Paris agreement. When Trump, egged on by Jared Kushner, inflamed tensions in the Persian Gulf, pitting a newly energized, radical Saudi crown prince against nearby, tiny Qatar last summer, Tillerson tried to ease tensions, where Pompeo enthusiastically joined Trump in signing an anti-terrorism pact with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, who are leading the anti-Qatar offensive.
And on North Korea, Tillerson doggedly sought to emphasize the primacy of diplomacy over many months, earning him the scorn of Trump’s tweets – one of which warned Tillerson that he was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” referring to the North Korean dictator, Kim Jung Un. And when Trump impulsively decided that he’d meet one-on-one with Kim, a risky move that many experts warned could end badly – and which was made without consulting the secretary of state – Tillerson quietly noted that so far, at least, North Korea hasn’t confirmed that Kim is ready to meet and he urged the White House to proceed with caution and to make careful preparations. And, unlike Tillerson, who’s spoken out in opposition to regime change in North Korea – that is, against toppling Kim by force – Pompeo has said that he hopes the United States can “find a way to separate that regime from this system,” and he’s gone so far as to hint about Kim’s assassination. “I am just not going to talk about that. Someone might think there was a coincidence if, you know, there was an accident,” Pompeo said in October.
Of course, last year, Tillerson, speaking privately, famously called Trump a “fucking moron,” a declaration that Tillerson refused to deny when pressed, probably at that moment sealing his fate as secretary of state. Indeed, the subject arose during Trump’s brief meeting with the press on Tuesday, with the president either not hearing, or pretending not to hear, the shouted questions. The transcript reads:
Reporter: Did you fire him because he called you a moron?
Reporter: Did you fire him because he called you a moron?
Trump: Say it again.
Meanwhile, Trump’s decision to replace Pompeo at the CIA with Deputy Director Gina Haspel, who’d be the first woman to run that agency, has also raised questions. Spencer Ackerman, writing for the Daily Beast, notes bluntly that during the administration of George W. Bush Haspel “ran an off-the-books prison in Thailand used as a torture laboratory for the earliest detained terrorism suspects.”
“Haspel has an impressive record as a CIA officer and is widely respected within the Agency, but it has also been publicly reported that she was directly involved in the decision to use enhanced interrogation techniques under the Bush Administration and in the subsequent destruction of taped evidence of these interrogations,” said Representative Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who is the ranking member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, in a statement released on Tuesday. “Given the enthusiasm the President has evinced for the use of torture during the campaign, it will be vital that Deputy Director Haspel answer specific questions about her views and whether she would comply with an order to restart the Agency’s enhanced interrogation program.”