Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's days appear to be numbered, with the White House planning to remove him in the next few weeks. That news, first reported by the New York Times, isn't hugely surprising, given that it was rumored to be the case ever since it was reported that Tillerson had called President Trump a “moron.”
What's more significant here are the dominoes that would reportedly fall once Tillerson is out: Specifically, CIA Director Mike Pompeo taking over for Tillerson at the State Department, and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) replacing Pompeo at the CIA. In one fell swoop, Trump would be removing one of three people who Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said is helping “separate our country from chaos” and promoting two men who would move the Trump administration conspicuously in the direction of Trump allies and yes-men.
Pompeo's elevation, in particular, would come at the expense of U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, another rumored pick to lead the State Department. Haley has often broken with the administration or, at the very least, gotten ahead of its messaging. (At one point, Trump seemed to only half-jokingly say that Haley “could easily be replaced.") It's not difficult to see that approach having harmed her, given Trump's reportedly unpleasant experience with Tillerson as his top diplomat.
Pompeo is decidedly on the other end of the spectrum. Despite holding a job that often requires independence from the White House and politics more generally, he has made conspicuously pro-Trump moves from his perch in Langley, Va. — to the point where he has reportedly given intelligence officers heartburn.
As I wrote a few weeks back, Pompeo has:
- Met with the purveyor of a disputed theory that the Democratic National Committee's emails weren't hacked by Russia but were leaked internally — a theory that flies in the face of the intelligence community's conclusions — reportedly at Trump's own request.
- Used a Trump-ian talking point — also directly at odds with the intelligence community's findings — that Russian hacking “did not affect the outcome of the  election.”
- Reportedly been enlisted by the White House to beat back stories about Trump campaign contacts with Russia.
- Put a CIA unit charged with investigating possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia directly under his control.
And if Trump were at all worried about replacing a loyalist at the CIA, Cotton would quickly put those fears to rest. The senator from Arkansas has been perhaps his most vocal defender in Congress — a guy once credibly labeled Trump's “wingman.”
The Trump administration was initially stocked with both allies and more pragmatic picks who were less tied to Trump's brand of politics and perhaps less willing to indulge his controversial impulses. More recently, the selection of John Kelly as chief of staff was thought to be a move away from yes-men and toward people who might keep Trump, for lack of a better phrase, in line.
That clearly hasn't happened, and these picks seem to move the needle more toward Trump die-hards.
But in a lot of ways, this was bound to happen. As his presidency has progressed, Trump has clearly clashed with establishment-friendly officials who have inhabited his inner circles. He seemed to almost torture former chief of staff Reince Priebus and press secretary Sean Spicer before their departures after just six months. He reportedly frustrated Tillerson so much that the secretary of state called him a "moron" in front of other people. National security adviser H.R. McMaster has reportedly been exasperated. Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director when Comey declined to declare his loyalty. Corker, who Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) once said talked to Trump more than any other senator, has clearly had it. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke has reportedly told Kelly she will resign over disagreements. And even as Kelly has stood by Trump — including during the flap over feuding with another Gold Star family — he has at times clearly had his patience with the commander in chief tested.
As Trump's presidency progresses — and as he makes it clearer and clearer that he's not going to change and may actually drift further from the GOP's comfort zone — it's going to become more difficult to pull talent from the ranks of people who might stand up to Trump. And a reportedly exasperated Trump is likely to be drawn more to yes-men and -women who promise (either implicitly or explicitly) not to put him through the things he has gone through with Tillerson.
It's almost an inevitable shift. It may be happening earlier than some expected.