Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker and Anne Gearan report:
The White House has readied a plan to oust embattled Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who has become one of the most personally loyal and politically savvy members of President Trump’s national security team, two administration officials confirmed Thursday.The plan, hatched by White House chief of staff John F. Kelly, is expected to be set in motion over the next few weeks, and has broad support within Trump’s inner circle, the officials said. But it was unclear whether Trump had signed off on the plan yet, and the president has been known to change his mind about personnel and other matters before finalizing decisions with public announcements.Under the plan, Pompeo would likely be replaced at the CIA by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), one of Trump’s most steadfast defenders and a confidant to some leading members of the foreign policy team, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House has not publicly announced the moves.
It’s hard not to have mixed feelings about Tillerson’s departure. On one hand, he’ll doubtless go down as one of the worst secretaries of state in history, having set about to gut America’s diplomatic capacity and destroy morale within his department. On the other hand, he reportedly called Trump a “moron,” so he obviously has a good head on his shoulders.
As strained as Tillerson’s relationship with Trump was, if nothing else he made some attempts to rein in the president’s more dangerous ideas and leave open the possibility that diplomacy might be worth pursuing with regard to countries such as Iran and North Korea. But there’s not much reason to believe that Pompeo would be a force pushing in the same direction.
Indeed, Pompeo has come under severe criticism for politicizing the CIA. He has distorted the results of intelligence community analysis in order to support Trump’s interpretation of Russian involvement in the 2016 election. At times he has given the impression that his first priority is protecting Trump politically, not giving him the most accurate information to help make life-or-death decisions.
Perhaps most disturbingly, Pompeo’s move to State and Cotton’s elevation to the CIA would make the end of the deal restraining Iran’s nuclear program, and possibly even another American war in the Middle East, much more likely.
While most experts and even some of Trump’s own officials agree that the Iran deal has achieved exactly what it was intended to do — keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons — Pompeo has been an ardent opponent of the deal from the start and has made clear his eagerness to scrap it. He shares that opinion with Cotton, who not only believes the deal should be abandoned but has also repeatedly suggested that a nice healthy bombing campaign would do the job of eliminating the risk of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. Their elevation would make it even more likely that the United States will completely withdraw from the deal, and if the deal implodes, that could mean Iran resuming its quest for nuclear weapons, which in turn would be used as justification for a war that some like Cotton seem so eager to begin.
Pompeo and Cotton have something else in common: Like Trump himself, they’re both supporters of torture. They take the position that the torture program under the George W. Bush administration was a great success, and was not actually “torture” despite the fact that it employed techniques such as waterboarding and stress positions (which are designed to produce excruciating pain).
When the Senate voted to ban the use of torture techniques in 2015, Cotton was one of 21 Republicans who voted no. He also once introduced an amendment to punish the family members of people convicted of violating sanctions on Iran with up to 20 years in prison, saying that such punishment should apply not only to spouses but also to “parents, children, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, grandparents, great grandparents, grandkids, great grandkids.”
The punishment he proposed would be automatic, without any need to show that the family members had done anything wrong. “There would be no investigation,” he said. After members of both parties expressed shock and disgust at such a profoundly un-American idea, Cotton withdrew it. But it’s worth noting that Trump once suggested murdering the families of suspected terrorists, so Cotton and his new boss would be on the same wavelength.
In short, calling Cotton a “hawk” does not begin to describe how terrifying his views are. If at any time in the past few years you had asked me, “Which future Republican president would be most likely to start World War III?,” my first answer would have been “Tom Cotton” without hesitation, and I’m sure I’m not alone.
The larger meaning of this shake-up is that it leaves Trump’s national security team more likely to encourage the president’s most dangerous impulses, which will affect both immediate and longer-term policy choices, not to mention what could happen in a crisis. There are still a couple of sane voices around Trump, but their numbers are dwindling.