President Trump's move to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo is not stunning. A plan for such a shake-up has been in the works — and reported — since autumn.
But when, or if, the president would act on the plan remained unclear until Tuesday morning, even though Tillerson found out about his dismissal on Saturday while traveling in Africa, according to The Washington Post's Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker.
The timeline that suggests Pompeo might have known about Trump's decision before appearing on CBS's “Face the Nation” on Sunday. And, in retrospect, Pompeo appeared to drop hints on the air that the change was imminent.
The first hint was Pompeo's mere presence on the show to answer questions about Trump's intention to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. There is an intelligence component to the talks, to be sure, but the matter is fundamentally a diplomatic one.
Tillerson, overseas, was ostensibly unavailable. Still, it was notable that the Trump administration dispatched Pompeo, rather than a senior official from the State Department.
A second hint was Pompeo's response when “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan asked whether he would be open to meeting with his North Korean counterpart.
“I will leave how these discussions proceed to the president of the United States,” Pompeo said. “He will set the course and tone for the direction. But I had a chance this weekend to read the histories — the CIA's histories of our involvement in the previous failed negotiations. You can be sure that I won't make those mistakes again. We will be at the center of providing the intelligence picture to the president and to the secretary of state, so that each of them can understand how it is we can most likely achieve the president's objective.”
In the moment, Pompeo seemed to be talking about the secretary of state as someone other than himself. Yet his reading-up on the history of negotiations with North Korea makes more sense, in hindsight, as does his vision of a secretary of state who understands the “intelligence picture.”
Brennan picked up on Pompeo's suggestion that he would be heavily involved in negotiations with North Korea and posed this question: “Tillerson said this will be done through him. Is that still the plan?”
That led to a third hint:
POMPEO: This is a level of discussion — the president is going to drive this effort, this negotiation, but it will take a team to build out the picture, so that we put the president in the best position so that he can achieve that outcome.
BRENNAN: Because it's unclear, though, if it's the State Department or your agency that will take the lead. It was your counterpart from South Korea who was at the White House this week.
POMPEO: I don't think there is any doubt about who is going to take the lead on this. The president of the United States is going to take the lead in developing ...
BRENNAN: So, the first meeting will be that presidential summit?
POMPEO: The president of the United States is going to take the lead in resolving this important conflict with North Korea.
Notice that Pompeo was unwilling to say that Tillerson would play a significant role — or any role. It might be true that Trump is the principal U.S. figure, but it would have been natural, when asked directly about Tillerson, for Pompeo to say that the secretary of state will be an important member of the team. Pompeo declined to do so.
And a fourth hint was something that cannot be conveyed in a transcript. This was Pompeo's facial expression when Brennan told him that “it's unclear, though, if it's the State Department or your agency that will take the lead.”
Maybe Pompeo was just in a good mood on Sunday morning and could not suppress a subtle smile. Or maybe he knew something that the rest of us did not.