President Trump has ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replaced him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, orchestrating a major change to his national security team amid delicate negotiations with North Korea, White House officials said Tuesday.
Trump last Friday asked Tillerson to step aside, and the embattled top diplomat cut short his trip to Africa on Monday to return to Washington.
Pompeo will replace him at the State Department, and Gina Haspel — the deputy director at the CIA — will succeed him at the CIA, becoming the first woman to run the spy agency, if confirmed.
The good news is that Haspel, a 30-year veteran of the CIA, not uber-partisan Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), will replace Pompeo. She drew rave reviews from former acting CIA director John McLaughlin, who told me she is a “consummate professional” and “well-respected throughout the Agency.” The protection of the CIA’s independence and integrity is essential under any administration, but no more so under Trump, given his aversion to truth-telling and his habit of contradicting the intelligence community.
As for Tillerson’s departure, this was a long time in coming. Tillerson never enjoyed the trust of the president, which is essential for any secretary of state. When he was denied his pick for deputy secretary, Elliott Abrams, the handwriting was on the wall — he would be under the White House’s thumb. After he was reportedly caught calling the president a “moron,” his days were numbered. (If not for the havoc and rash of dismissals in the White House, he might have departed sooner.)
Tillerson was arguably the weakest secretary of state in the post-World War II era. He oversaw a failed reorganization effort at Foggy Bottom, which depressed morale and led to an exodus of veteran diplomats. His downgrading of human rights as an essential part of American foreign policy mortified the human rights community and initiated a retreat from defense of democracies at the very time Western democracies are under assault from authoritarians and neo-fascists. His aversion to the press and to the role of public diplomacy more generally, as well as his frosty relationship with Congress, indicated that he never made the successful transition from oil executive to the country’s lead diplomat.
“Tillerson’s tenure will be a little remembered footnote in America’s diplomatic history like the brief undistinguished tenure of Edward Stettinius (another corporate executive who proved to be a diplomatic failure),” says former ambassador Eric Edelman. “It will be notable mostly for the damage done to the U.S. diplomatic platform in the world due to his acquiescence in the grotesque budget cuts imposed by [OMB Director Mick] Mulvaney and the absolute hemorrhage of experienced senior diplomats from the Foreign Service.” He added, “It will take 15 to 20 years to recover from his irresponsible stewardship.”
In retrospect, it was a ridiculous pick. At a time of multiple, complex threats, hiring someone with no public service experience at all, let alone State Department service, was reckless in the extreme.
Middle East veteran negotiator Dennis Ross observes, “Tillerson by all accounts is a decent and serious person. But it is not at all clear he was right for this position.” He tells me, “While he was never going to be able to control the messaging on foreign policy given the way the president operates, he denied himself the full assets of the building. He went along with the gutting of the State Department and other than reorganizing the Department, it was never clear what his priorities for foreign policy were.” He adds, “Moreover, because few believed he actually spoke for the administration, he needed to show he could get things done—otherwise, other leaders would have little reason to respond to him.” For example, Ross notes, “One thing he should have been able to resolve was the imbroglio between the Saudis/Emirates and Qatar. Here he tried and failed and made a cardinal mistake in the process: he showed up in the region trying to broker the deal without having already worked everything out privately in advance. It was his first real foray in conflict resolution and he needed to succeed, not showcase a failure.”
GOP senators, including Cotton, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, who claim to be foreign policy gurus, were equally foolish in confirming him after an embarrassing performance during his confirmation hearing.
Max Bergmann, another State Department veteran, now at the Center for American Progress, tells me, “He is a contender for worst Secretary of State in history. He was also virtually irrelevant in crafting policy.” However, Bergmann says, what “he will be most known for his disdain of U.S. diplomacy. In a period of economic expansion he set about gutting a department that had already suffered under six years of austerity.” He added, “His disastrous ‘reorg’ has proved a lie to the notion that government should be run like a business. In his brief tenure [he] has found a way to inflict lasting damage to the diplomatic corps and U.S. diplomacy.”
Any secretary of state would face herculean challenges under a president who is as impulsive, ignorant and weirdly obsequious toward America’s great international foe — Russia — as Trump is. Trump has installed a disproportionate number of military and ex-military officials in key roles, putting those who deploy soft power at a severe disadvantage. If Pompeo, who does enjoy Trump’s trust, can elevate the profile of the department, improve morale, steer Trump away from international disasters and reestablish the essential role of human rights in our foreign policy, he’ll earn our deep gratitude. He surely will not have an easy time of it.
UPDATE, 10:39 p.m.: “President Trump has demonstrated yet again that he is the Commander-in-Chaos,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a written statement. He continued, “President Trump has never understood the critical role that the State Department plays in defining our values and promoting our interests abroad, or in advancing our national security and keeping the American people safe. His constant saber-rattling, and his verbal broadsides against diplomacy, our allies, and our values has ultimately weakened American leadership on the global stage.”
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