This post has been updated.
The Great Disrupter and the Boy Scout were never comfortable partners. So there was a sense of inevitability to President Trump’s announcement Tuesday that he was dumping Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and installing Mike Pompeo, the man he wanted in that job back in November.
The gregarious, risk-taking Pompeo has an easy rapport with Trump that the more cautious, reticent Tillerson never achieved. A successful secretary of state needs to be able to speak for the president — something Tillerson could never do and Pompeo will probably achieve from Day One.
Trump’s tone in announcing the reshuffle was almost that of an exultant commander picking his “war Cabinet,” though the challenges for now will be diplomatic. In Trump’s face-to-face negotiations with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, possibly the apex of his presidency, Pompeo will be his key adviser and perhaps emissary.
“Tremendous energy, tremendous intellect,” Trump said of Pompeo. “We are always on the same wavelength.” As for Tillerson, Trump concluded: “We disagreed on things,” citing the Iran nuclear deal as an example of where the two “were not really thinking the same.”
Tillerson was at his wounded best as he said an abrupt goodbye Tuesday afternoon. He was dignified and generous, even as the fatigue and stress were evident in his face. He rightly took credit for framing the diplomatic strategy that engaged North Korea — but also conceded his inability to fashion clear policies for Syria, China and Russia. He dispensed with the usual ritual testimonial to a president who has treated him so poorly, instead thanking his colleagues at the State Department and the Pentagon.
Tillerson’s ouster capped a year of humiliating treatment from Trump. Representing a president who, through leaks and tweets, advertised his personal discomfort with the Eagle Scout, Tillerson was in an untenable position.
The danger is that Pompeo, so much in sync with Trump, will remove the dampers that have sometimes tempered the president’s disruptive instincts.
Tillerson offered solid, traditional foreign policy counsel. He opposed gutting the Iran nuclear deal, starting a trade war, relocating the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and other moves. He operated in tandem with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. This axis of caution has now been broken, perhaps leaving Mattis in a weakened position.
Pompeo has been among the most political CIA directors in modern history, acting as a quasi-policy adviser in addition to intelligence chief. CIA operators liked his gung-ho activism; analysts were warier, fearing that Pompeo would dilute the agency’s independence. In his public appearances, Pompeo has been feisty and even combative in supporting the administration. That undoubtedly pleased Trump, but it made Pompeo a more partisan figure than the usual CIA director.
Pompeo is a smooth communicator and may fix some of the obvious problems at State. He’ll talk more with the press corps and State employees, both hungry for contact after the taciturn Tillerson. Colleagues are urging Pompeo to quickly name career ambassadors to vacant embassies, which would revive morale among Foreign Service officers.
Tillerson’s biggest mistake was his seeming disdain for his own agency. He appeared to regard Foggy Bottom as enemy territory; only one senior aide, policy planning director Brian Hook, spoke authoritatively for him on policy issues. Tillerson’s tenure produced a genuine morale crisis at State, with precious talent walking out the door nearly every week.
Trump nominated a career CIA officer, Deputy Director Gina Haspel, as Pompeo’s successor. She’s popular with colleagues at Langley, but her confirmation hearings will be contentious because of her involvement in the CIA’s secret detention and interrogation programs. Former Obama administration intelligence officials speak highly of her, which may blunt Democratic criticism. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), the conservative firebrand, would have been a much more controversial choice, giving the CIA a face even more partisan than that of Pompeo.
The fulcrum in foreign policy has been Mattis and Tillerson. The center-weight will now shift to Trump and Pompeo. The policy process may be smoother, with a chief diplomat who knows (and shapes) the president’s mind.
But Tillerson’s demise removes a restraint on the president’s sometimes impulsive behavior. Trump resented tutelage from a man who privately called him a “moron,” but Tillerson’s advice on Iran, Russia, China and North Korea was sensible and generally correct.
Now Trump will have a kindred spirit at State; the White House and Foggy Bottom will be going in the same direction, for better or worse. Pompeo will help in shaping the high-level diplomacy that’s ahead. The worry is that he may be an accelerator when the president needs a brake.