President Donald Trump’s firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is the latest move in an audacious power play designed to build a governing team in his own image and to purge restraints that have tempered his brazen, impulsive instincts.
Weeks of staff departures in the West Wing, with the prospect of more to come, and days of turmoil and chaotic governance have left Trump more solitary than ever before, but also offer space for him to give his disruptive, nonconformist impulses free rein.
There is a building sense that Trump is relishing the prospect of running the presidency of which he always dreamed, as he acts from the gut, disregards “expert” advice and lives out the convention-trashing promise of his campaign.
“I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want,” Trump, a President who values personal loyalty, told reporters Tuesday.
That’s ominous for other subordinates who have been at odds with the President. Speculation is simmering about the fates of officials including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, White House chief of staff John Kelly and national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
Restraining influences around the President have also loosened with the resignations of his confidante and communications director Hope Hicks, the departure under a cloud of his personal aide John McEntee, and the eclipse of his son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka Trump amid ethics questions and the corrosive impact of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.
In the short term, Trump’s desire to move Mike Pompeo from the CIA to the State Department could actually provide more coherence and stability to US foreign policy after months of chaos, given his ideological synergy with the President.
That will be especially important with the approaching epochal summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. It could also reinforce the President’s determination to do away with the Iran nuclear deal, given that both Trump and Pompeo have been strident critics of the Obama-era agreement.
Such a move would trigger an earthquake in US relations with allies committed to the Iran deal and mean more shocks to the international system. An unleashed Trump is likely to give the rest of the world a better taste of the turmoil and disorder that has been rocking Washington for 14 months.
There was no secret that Trump and Tillerson clashed on issues like Iran, the best approach to North Korea and the Paris climate deal. Theirs was also a personal and stylistic disconnect, with the courtly Texan always an odd fit for the President’s unchained sensibility. It came as no surprise that Tillerson reportedly called his boss a “moron” last year, a comment he publicly declined to deny.
The expected eventual departure of McMaster will give Trump the chance to round out his foreign policy unit, and will leave Defense Secretary James Mattis as perhaps the final restraining influence on Trump’s diplomacy.
The overhaul in the foreign policy team also represents a final break with the Republican foreign policy establishment, which had been instrumental in pushing the claims of Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil chief.
Tillerson was the epitome of the corporate elite that had always spurned the brash Trump, just like Gary Cohn, the top economic adviser and former Goldman Sachs titan who left last week after Trump defied his advice and demanded tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.
Trump admitted the personal and political gulf between them after firing Tillerson via a Tweet on Tuesday.
“I actually got along well with Rex. But really it was a different mindset. It was a different thinking,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
Pompeo on same page as Trump
Unlike Tillerson, Pompeo, a politically astute former Republican congressman, has been careful to align himself with Trump in public on key issues, as has UN envoy Nikki Haley, and they will form a tight and combative foreign policy team.
Pompeo is also viewed as a sharp, intelligent official, and given that he will have Trump’s ear, at least to start with, has the potential to evolve into stronger leader at Foggy Bottom than Tillerson.
His political connections may also bring the Department back into administration foreign policy making after its demoralizing isolation under Tillerson, whose effort to slash the department’s budget also fractured morale in the building.
The secretary of state nominee appreciates that with Trump, who is acutely conscious of his image, flattery will get you everywhere.
“I have seen 25-year intelligence professionals receive briefings. I would tell you that President Trump is the kind of recipient of our information at the same level that they are,” Pompeo said at the American Enterprise Institute in January.
“Things move awfully fast. He has the grounding for him to be able to grasp this information in a way that he can ask sophisticated questions that then lead to important policy discussions,” Pompeo added, offering insight into a side of Trump that contrasts with his public image.
One of the first big issues for Pompeo will be the Iran deal. Trump has demanded European allies agree to change the pact by May or he will pull out. Pompeo has been a vehement critic of the agreement, that was largely kept alive by Tillerson’s emergency dealmaking with Congress last year.
A pullout by Washington could fracture US relations with European allies and leave America on the path to a military showdown with Iran, at the same time as it is trying to walk back from the brink of war on the Korean peninsula.
Still, there may also be an upside for US allies with Tillerson’s departure. Foreign diplomats frequently complained that they could not be sure that Tillerson was genuinely speaking for the President on vital issues of foreign policy.
That was never more the case than when Trump tweeted that his secretary of state was wasting his time by trying to talk to North Korea last year. The fact that Trump has now done a 180 on dialogue with Pyongyang is just an illustration of how unpredictable, and often unplanned his personal diplomacy really is.
In perhaps the final straw for his relationship with Tillerson, Trump made the decision to meet Kim without consulting his secretary of state.
One surprising factor of Monday’s reshuffle is Trump’s choice of career CIA officer Gina Haspel, currently a director at the agency to take replace Pompeo.
In the months of speculation about the Tillerson ouster, many observers bought into the idea that another Iran hawk, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, who has been complimentary of the President, would be moved to CIA.
But the elevation of Haspel will install a respected career CIA veteran in the agency’s top job, and may reassure a workforce that has been caught up in Trump’s assault on the intelligence community over its conclusion that Russia meddled in the 2016 election to help him win the White House.