As they prepared for a new leader, diplomats and civil servants at the State Department expressed relief and trepidation Wednesday after the stunning firing of Rex Tillerson, whose tenure as secretary of state was one of the most contentious in recent memory.
For the hopeful, the transition rids the department of a former oil executive criticized for walling himself off from career diplomats, attempting to slash the department’s budget and returning internal memos from subordinates with grades reflecting typos and other highly technical infractions.
If confirmed, President Trump’s pick to succeed Tillerson, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, would come in with a strong working relationship with the president and a track record of giving broad autonomy to his underlings.
“Pompeo isn’t a micromanager, and he didn’t start his tenure by saying we have to cut the agency by 25 percent,” said a current 30-year veteran of the Foreign Service, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak publicly. “That’s a good start.”
The official said fewer people would doubt whether Pompeo speaks for the president, and praised the CIA director’s protection of an institution that, like the State Department, Trump viewed with skepticism at the outset of his presidency.
But diplomats also expressed disquiet over Pompeo, whose origins as a tea party congressman from Kansas leave a long paper trail of inflammatory comments about Islam, torture and hard-line positions that clash with the typical ethos of the Foreign Service.
“In the view of many diplomats, Tillerson was solid on policy and quite horrible on management,” said Ronald E. Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. “Now they may get better management but worse policy.”
Pompeo’s hard-line views and blunt demeanor are precisely what endear him to Trump, who explained that his decision to fire Tillerson was based heavily on political differences on several issues, including the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
“I actually got along well with Rex, but really it was a different mind-set, a different thinking,” he told reporters Tuesday. “When you look at the Iran deal, I thought it was terrible, he thought it was okay.”
That will be much less of a problem with Pompeo, who shares Trump’s disdain for the Paris climate accord, from which the president withdrew last year, and the Iran nuclear agreement, which Trump may formally renounce as early as May. After Trump was elected in November 2016, Pompeo took to Twitter, saying, “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.”
Pompeo, like Trump, has also condemned Muslims in unsparing terms, such as in 2013, when he said the failure of American Muslim leaders to forcefully denounce the Boston Marathon bombing made them “potentially complicit in these attacks.” The blanket statement drew condemnation from Muslim American organizations, which viewed the remark as a form of guilt by association.
The sudden departure of Tillerson, who served as a brake on many of Trump’s most impulsive decisions, has left diplomats who handle some of the most sensitive national security issues in the lurch.
When Trump fired off his tweet announcing Tillerson’s ouster on Tuesday morning, for instance, some of Tillerson’s top aides were in Europe preparing for meetings in Vienna and Berlin to negotiate a supplemental agreement to the Iran deal. That side deal requires European governments to take a tougher stance toward Iran in exchange for a promise that Trump will not rip up the entire agreement, a promise Europeans are already viewing with more skepticism as the president tries to install a self-proclaimed Iran hawk in Foggy Bottom.
The fate of Tillerson’s top aides, such as Policy Planning Director Brian Hook, who is en route to Europe for those negotiations, is the subject of intense speculation inside the building given expectations that Pompeo, if confirmed, will clean house. Hook built up a team of 15 staffers in his office who held significant sway over department policy across every geographic region.
“Everyone wants to know what will happen to Hook,” one official said.
Meanwhile, Tillerson’s chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, and her deputy, Christine Ciccone, offered their resignations Tuesday, which will be effective March 31.
The undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, Steven Goldstein, was rapidly fired Tuesday, adding to an already large number of vacancies at the department. Overall, eight of the top 10 jobs are vacant and being filled by officials serving in an acting capacity.
Diplomats scrambling to prepare for a historic meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in May are expressing fears that the nomination of Susan Thornton, a Tillerson ally, could be pulled before her confirmation in the Senate, leaving the department without an acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs at a critical juncture.
“There’s a lot of worry about what will happen to the few political appointees who are in place: Will they be removed or simply marginalized, and what will that mean for current diplomatic efforts?” said Jeff Rathke, a former State Department official and fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“At the same time, there’s some relief that the dysfunctional relationship between the secretary and the building is coming to an end,” he said.