President Donald Trump had an amazing week in firing and hiring.
He’s now getting the people he wants around him: Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State and Joe diGenova, a former federal prosecutor who is joining his personal legal team. He also managed to get rid of Andrew McCabe.
I’ve got a ton of bookmarks to get through, so this post will look at Rex Tillerson. I’ll get to McCabe and diGenova in other entries.
Long post ahead. Time to grab a cuppa and a snack.
On Tuesday, March 13, 2018, Trump sacked Tillerson, calling him back from his African trip. Tillerson had reportedly fallen ill in Kenya on Saturday, March 10. Curiously, however, a Trump fan tweeted that day:
John Kelly called Rex Tillerson last Friday during Tillerson’s tour of Africa and told him to come home because he was going to be terminated.
I have chosen one of the truly great business leaders of the world, Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, to be Secretary of State.
CNN explained at the time that a handful of high-level Republicans, including Condoleezza Rice, encouraged Trump to nominate Tillerson:
“Oil is about geopolitics with a capital ‘G,'” the source said, noting that Tillerson’s knowledge extends well beyond Russia and into the Middle East and Indonesia. “You do business in the toughest places with the toughest characters and Rex is the best of that group.”
Rex impressed Trump fans by doing his own grocery shopping in January 2017. No one was bothered by his $182m golden parachute from ExxonMobil. They also provided him with benefits they were under no obligation to provide but did so because he was moving into government. Rex was the wealthiest cabinet member in American history.
Tillerson’s nomination was confirmed on February 1, 2017, several days after Trump’s inauguration, despite an unsuccessful attempt by Chuck Schumer (D-New York) to delay proceedings. Vice President Mike Pence swore him in later that day. By February 17, his aides laid off a number of State Department seventh-floor employees in the diplomatic corps as he put foreign policy portfolios under White House control. This gave rise to accusations of a ‘politically-minded purge’ and a ‘bloodbath’. In reality, Tillerson rightly thought that the State Department was carrying too much unnecessary weight. Interestingly, he was on his first official trip at the time, attending the G20 meeting in Bonn.
Tillerson handled opposition stoically. On February 23, the American activist group Democrats Abroad organised a protest against his visit to the American embassy in Mexico City. On March 3, Sweden’s foreign minister Margot Wallström called him to complain about negative US press coverage of her country. On March 14, he said the US would leave the UN Human Rights Committee if they did not undertake ‘considerable reform’. On March 10, journalists were angry that they were not allowed to fly on his plane for his first trip to Asia, which meant they would have to fly commercially with the great unwashed. On March 15, they were positively seething as Rex took a smaller plane with one journalist on board — and not one from Big Media. He took Erin McPike from the Independent Journal Review, a digital news outlet founded by Republicans. On March 18, McPike interviewed Tillerson, who discussed his press policy, bringing up excellent points:
Look, it’s driven by a couple of things. Primarily it’s driven — believe it or not, you won’t believe it — we’re trying to save money. I mean, quite frankly, we’re saving a lot of money by using this aircraft, which also flies faster, allows me to be more efficient, and we’re going to destinations that, by and large, the media outlets have significant presence already, so we’re not hiding from any coverage of what we’re doing. The fact that the press corps is not traveling on the plane with me, I understand that there are two aspects of that. One, there’s a convenience aspect. I get it. The other is, I guess, what I’m told is that there’s this long tradition that the Secretary spends time on the plane with the press. I don’t know that I’ll do a lot of that. I’m just not … that’s not the way I tend to work. That’s not the way I tend to spend my time. I spend my time working on this airplane. The entire time we’re in the air, I’m working. Because there is a lot of work to do in the early stages. Maybe things will change and evolve in the future. But I hope people don’t misunderstand … there’s nothing else behind it than those simple objectives.
as I understand it, most major news outlets have presence in China. They have bureau offices. They have people there. So it’s not like they can’t cover what’s happening there. The only thing that’s missing is the chance to talk more in the air.
Incidentally, on that visit, China’s president Xi had warm words for Tillerson. The Japanese were also impressed. But that didn’t stop the Washington Post from intimating he had a defective personality (emphasis mine):
Most of his interactions are with an insular circle of political aides who are new to the State Department. Many career diplomats say they still have not met him, and some have been instructed not to speak to him directly — or even make eye contact.
Legal Insurrection commented:
While there were many people who immediately called bullshit on that claim, WaPo weaponized the remainder of the media and social media to create the impression of Tillerson as having a defective personality.
Last April, the media also misrepresented his comment on Bashir Assad, which was perfectly reasonable:
The process by which Assad would leave is something that requires an international community effort both to first defeat ISIS within Syria, to stabilize the Syrian country to avoid further civil war and then to work collectively with our partners around the world through a political process that would lead to Assad leaving.
The Conservative Treehouse explained the background to the US air strike on Syria that month (emphases in the original):
On September 30th 2016 the New York Times quietly released a leaked audio recording of Secretary John Kerry meeting with multiple factions associated within Syria.
When you listen to the audio recording … it becomes immediately obvious what was going on in 2014, 2015 and 2016 as an outcome of policy from the White House. In addition, you discover why this jaw-dropping 2016 leak/story was buried by the U.S. media and how it connects to the prior 4 years of perplexing U.S. mid-east policy.
This evidence within this single story would/should forever remove any credibility toward the U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. It also destroys the credibility of a large number of well known republicans, and explains how the prior action has placed President Trump into a precarious position requiring a careful approach …
♦ First, only regime change, the removal of Bashir Assad, in Syria was the 2013, 2014, and 2015 goal for President Obama. This is admitted and outlined by Secretary John Kerry.
♦ Secondly, in order to accomplish this primary goal, the White House was willing to watch the rise of ISIS (’13, ’14, ’15) by placing their bet that ISIS’s success would force Syrian President Bashir Assad to acquiesce toward Obama’s terms and step down.
♦ Thirdly, in order to facilitate the objective, Obama and Kerry intentionally gave arms to ISIS and even, arguably, attacked a Syrian government military convoy to stop a strategic attack upon the Islamic extremists killing 80 Syrian soldiers …
The problem in the Obama/Kerry’s secret strategy became clear when ISIS grew in sufficient strength to give the White House optimism for the scheme – however, instead of capitulation Assad then turned to Russia for help …
Tillerson gave a press briefing on April 11 and, explaining the reasons for the airstrike, said:
We want to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people. We want to create a future for Syria that is stable and secure. And so Russia can be a part of that future and play an important role, or Russia can maintain its alliance with this group, which we believe is not going to serve Russia’s interest longer-term. But only Russia can answer that question.
On North Korea, Tillerson understood the value of putting China under economic pressure to stop certain trade deals with the rogue nation. As to whether Kim Jong Un is crazy, he told Fox’s Bret Baier last April:
All indications, Bret, by intelligence agencies – and there have been a number of independent psychologists who’ve done analysis as best they can – all indications are that he is not crazy. He may be ruthless. He may be a murderer. He may be someone who in many respects we would say by our standards is irrational. But he is not insane. And indications are in the past, and when certain events have happened, he has taken rational – he’s made rational choices. Now, we don’t have a long history with this young leader, only about five years, so we recognize we are dealing with a relative level of unknown and uncertainty. That is part of the risk that the President has been willing to take in this approach.
In May, he addressed State Department employees and spoke about Trump’s America First policy:
We must secure the nation. We must protect our people. We must protect our borders. We must protect our ability to be that voice of our values now and forevermore. And we can only do that with economic prosperity. So it’s foreign policy projected with a strong ability to enforce the protection of our freedoms with a strong military. And all of you that have been at this a long time understand the value of speaking with a posture of strength – not a threatening posture, but a posture of strength. People know we can back it up.
He accompanied Trump to Saudi Arabia and did the ceremonial sword dance, but, back in Washington, he finally put an end to 18 years of ‘break the fast’ parties at the State Department. I did not know that such celebrations went on and was astounded to find out they’d been going on since the Clinton administration. I’m sure Mike Pompeo will continue the Tillerson policy.
Tillerson was concerned about human trafficking, and the State Department published an extensive report on it:
Human trafficking is one of the most tragic human rights issues of our time. It splinters families, distorts global markets, undermines the rule of law, and spurs other transnational criminal activity. It threatens public safety and national security.
“But worst of all, the crime robs human beings of their freedom and their dignity. That’s why we must pursue an end to the scourge of human trafficking.
“Today we take another key step towards that goal. The 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report highlights the successes achieved and the remaining challenges before us on this important global issue.
He was a Boy Scout in his youth and past president of the organisation. He spoke to Texas scouts about the important values being part of such an organisation instils. In July, the Boy Scouts of America gave him a bronze statue recognising his years of service. Among other things, he encouraged adoption of the policy to admit openly gay youths, which was adopted in 2013.
A few days later, on July 24, rumours started circulating that Trump might dump him. That was after Trump’s explosive interview to the New York Times in which he said that, had he known Jeff Sessions would recuse, he never would have appointed him. The next day, a State Department spokeswoman said Rex was ‘taking a little time off’. That day, The Trumpet had a post on Sessions and Tillerson:
We like Rex Tillerson. But maybe the clock has run out on him too:
The Free Beacon is a conservative site. The article was damning. Although it acknowledged that Obama holdovers were causing policy friction between State and the White House:
The situation has impacted morale within the administration and stoked further tensions between President Donald Trump and Tillerson, who has begun to hint that he will quit his post in the near future …
Policy differences also have emerged regarding Iran policy, how to deal with the regional impasse over Qatar’s terror financing, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, according to multiple insiders.
Seb Gorka was still part of the administration at the time. Tillerson had discussed the military. On August 10, Gorka said:
Deputy Assistant to the President Sebastian Gorka said Thursday that it is “nonsensical” for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to weigh in on military matters.
In a recorded interview on BBC Radio, Gorka stated, “The idea that Secretary Tillerson is going to discuss military matters is simply nonsensical” …
Gorka’s interview seems to try and discredit Tillerson’s statements on the North Korea threat.
In retrospect, I’m looking at this August 21 tweet in a new light:
Last August, Tillerson visited London to meet with Theresa May and Boris Johnson. He pledged that the US would be a ‘steadfast ally’ to Britain post-Brexit. When he returned, he announced plans to consolidate or eliminate certain special envoy positions. Naturally, the Left was unhappy.
That month, the melée in Charlottesville took place. Fox’s Chris Wallace interviewed Tillerson on his Sunday show and asked him about it. Tillerson gave a good reply about the values on display not being American ones. Wallace then asked about Trump’s response. Tillerson said:
The president speaks for himself.
Personally, I don’t really see the big deal, but the media had a field day not only with Trump but also Tillerson. On August 27, an Axios article said that the end was nigh for Rex. The news site had spoken with Tillerson’s spokesman R C Hammond. In retrospect, I noted this:
Tillerson keeps recommending to Trump that he re-certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal; whereas Trump has made clear he wants to cancel it. Hammond’s response: “This admin inherited a lousy deal. It’s taking the circumstances created by the Deal and trying to build around it a policy that addresses all of the threats Iran offers the world.”
In early October, NBC stirred the pot, saying he was going to resign. They broke the ‘moron’ story:
The tensions came to a head around the time President Donald Trump delivered a politicized speech in late July to the Boy Scouts of America, an organization Tillerson once led, the officials said.
Just days earlier, Tillerson had openly disparaged the president, referring to him as a “moron,” after a July 20 meeting at the Pentagon with members of Trump’s national security team and Cabinet officials, according to three officials familiar with the incident.
In an unscheduled statement to reporters Wednesday morning, Tillerson directly addressed that version of events, saying, “I have never considered leaving this post.”
He gave an extensive press briefing on the NBC report. NBC was disingenuous in not fully reporting what Tillerson said:
QUESTION: Is that the only thing that you consider to be erroneous in that article?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: I think it’s the most important element of the article, is to reaffirm my commitment to this role that President Trump’s asked me to serve, and to dispel with this notion that I have ever considered leaving. I have answered that question repeatedly; for some reason, it continues to be misreported. There has never been a consideration in my mind to leave. I serve at the appointment of the President and I am here for as long as the President feels I can be useful to achieving his objectives.
The Washington Examiner chimed in with more rumour. That said, this is something to watch in the coming weeks (emphases mine):
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin reportedly have forged a “suicide pact” in which all three members of President Trump’s Cabinet would leave if one of them becomes a target of the president.
On March 20, 2018, a Twitter user snapped a photo of Tillerson and Mattis going to dine privately in Washington DC. Only a couple of weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that the two worked together in cabinet meetings to slow-roll HR McMaster — and Trump — on policy decisions of which they disapproved.
On October 15, he spoke with CNN’s Jake Tapper. Tapper pressed him on the alleged ‘moron’ quote and Tillerson said Tapper was trying to make a game out of it:
I’m not playin’.
Unfortunately, the rumour mill was correct on November 30. By then, Trump was no doubt looking for a replacement.
On January 5, Tillerson publicly defended Trump:
He loves his country. He puts Americans & America first. He’s smart. He demands results wherever he goes and he holds those around him accountable for whether he’s done the job he’s asked them to do.
He also gave a rare interview to CNN, in which he said he never questioned President Trump’s mental fitness. On the foreign policy front, he said the relationship between Russia and the US is ‘strained’.
On January 17, he spoke about Syria at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. Condoleezza Rice arranged the event:
… you certainly have a true advocate in your ranks: my friend, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, who – I don’t know if she takes responsibility for this situation she got me into or not, but I – (laughter) – I hold her partially accountable anyway. And – but I appreciate Condi’s advice and counsel. When you arrive at the Secretary of State’s desk, I was looking for the how-to manual; there wasn’t one there. So she’s been a great source of help and inspiration to me …
As we survey Syria today, we see the big picture, a situation characterized by principally three factors:
ISIS is substantially, but not completely defeated.
The Assad regime controls about half of Syria’s territory and its population.
And continued strategic threats to the U.S. from not just ISIS and al-Qaida, but from others persist. And this threat I’m referring to is principally Iran.
On February 21, he made his first trip to Egypt to meet with foreign minister Sameh Shoukry in Cairo:
Well, I’m delighted to be in Cairo, my first trip to Egypt as Secretary of State, and to really have very comprehensive discussions about this almost one-half-century relationship between the U.S. and Egypt and our commitment to strengthening this partnership in the years to come.
I’m also very pleased to be with Foreign Minister Shoukry, who has become a friend as we have engaged on a number of challenges in the region and to address those jointly and with a great deal of agreement between us as to how those issues need to be addressed. I look forward to my meeting with President al-Sisi and appreciate his receiving me as well.
On February 25, his father — Bob J Tillerson — died, holding the hand of his wife of 70 years, Patty Sue. He, too, was active in the Boy Scouts. He met Patty Sue Patton at Boy Scout camp one year when she visited her brother. Tillerson Sr also served in the US Navy in the Pacific during the Second World War. We discovered that Tillerson’s middle name is Wayne and that he has two sisters.
On March 10, during his first and final tour of Africa as Secretary of State, Tillerson discussed North Korea while he was in Djibouti. This was just after North and South Korea met:
In terms of the decision to engage between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, that’s a decision the President took himself. I spoke to him very early this morning about that decision and we had a good conversation. This is something that he’s had on his mind for quite some time, so it was not a surprise in any way, because I think this has long been something. He’s expressed it openly before about his willingness to meet with Kim Jong-un …
So I think it was really – what changed was his posture in a fairly dramatic way that, in all honesty, was a – came as a little bit of a surprise to us as well that he was so forward-leaning in his conversations with the delegation from South Korea.
Three days later, Trump tweeted:
Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!
Minutes later, RT came out with the first report, which they expanded on March 15:
This is a major shake-up of Trump’s cabinet. Tillerson was made to cut short his trip to Africa and return to Washington the day before the announcement, as preparations were underway for a meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un.
Haspel was the deputy director of the CIA. She is the first woman to lead the US intelligence service.
Tillerson has recently taken an ambivalent stance towards North Korea. In mid-February, he said that he was “listening” to Pyongyang, adding that it is his job to “ensure” the North Koreans know that Washington keeps the negotiation channels open. At the same time, he also said that the US still prefers the policy of “large sticks” in relations with North Korea.
Pompeo seems to have taken a more hard-line approach. On Sunday, he said that Trump would make no “concessions” to the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. Speaking to Fox News, he also said that Pyongyang must stop its missile tests and “allow” the US to conduct military drills in the region. North Korea should also leave discussions for denuclearization on the table, he added.
Tillerson was also out of sync with the White House regarding the case of Sergei Skripal, the former double agent who was poisoned in the UK. Tillerson said he didn’t know whether the Russian government had any knowledge of the attack, but agreed with British investigators that Moscow was “likely responsible.” By contrast, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders refused to attribute responsibility for the incident, suggesting that more proof was needed to draw any definite conclusions.
RT discussed the aforementioned goings-on in October 2017:
Relations between Trump and Tillerson have reportedly been strained for quite some time. Back in October 2017, NBC said that Tillerson called the president a “moron” and threatened to resign. The Secretary of State then dismissed reports about his intention to leave his post. He repeatedly declined to deny reports that he called Trump a “moron,” however.
Trump held a press briefing on the South Lawn that afternoon. The New York Times has the full transcript. Excerpts follow.
Note how Trump said right away that he and Mike Pompeo were on the same page:
I’ve worked with Mike Pompeo now for quite some time. Tremendous energy, tremendous intellect. We’re always on the same wavelength. The relationship has been very good. That’s what I need as secretary of state.
I wish Rex Tillerson well.
Iran was a huge factor in Tillerson’s dismissal:
Rex and I have been talking about this for a long time. We got along actually quite well. But we disagreed on things. When you look at the Iran deal. I think it’s terrible. I guess he — it was O.K. I wanted to either break it or do something. And he felt a little bit differently.
So we were not really thinking the same. With Mike, Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process. I think it’s going to go very well. Rex is a very good man. I like Rex a lot. I really appreciate his commitment and his service. And I’ll be speaking to Rex over a long period of time.
On imminent talks with North Korea:
No, I really didn’t discuss it very much with him honestly. I made that decision by myself. Rex wasn’t, as you know, in this country. I made the North Korea decision with consultation from many people but I made that decision by myself. I actually got along well with Rex. But really it was a different mind-set. It was a different thinking.
A reporter asked Trump about the ‘moron’ remark, but Trump pretended he couldn’t hear the question, even when repeated.
Trump concluded on Tillerson and Pompeo:
And, you know, I wish Rex a lot of good things. I think he’s going to do — I think he’s going to be very happy. I think Rex will be much happier now. But I really appreciate his service.
But with Mike, we’ve had a very good chemistry right from the beginning.
This is very important:
I’ve gotten to know a lot of people very well over the last year and I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the cabinet and other things that I want.
The Free Beacon reported that some in the White House warned Tillerson not to oppose Trump on Iran because it could cost him his job, which it did.
Tillerson gave a closing statement. His voice cracked a bit in the first minute. I’m sure he has never been sacked before. Then he recovered to say that he would be in place until March 31, although he had already designated his responsibilities to his deputy secretary of state John Sullivan. He said that he would be thanking and bidding farewell to those who worked with him. He asked that other State employees not resign. He reminded them that they all take the same oath and that they should continue to commit themselves to it. He then gave a brief recap of pressure points around the world. He ended by saying he would be returning to private life and that it was an ‘honour’ for him to serve as Secretary of State.
The Hill picked up on Tillerson’s thanking everyone but Trump. He mentioned Trump only once, and not by name:
I received a call today from the president of the United States a little after noontime from Air Force One, and I’ve also spoken to White House chief of staff [John] Kelly to ensure we have clarity about the days ahead.
Things got sticky for Steve Goldstein, under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, when he released a statement that morning stating Tillerson had no idea why he was sacked. You can read it in full here. That day, Steve Goldstein was fired.
Tillerson was a good Secretary of State, but there were things he didn’t do, like investigate Soros-instigated initiatives in Macedonia funded by US foreign aid in 2016. Perhaps Pompeo can get to the bottom of that. Nor did Tillerson want to look into Hillary Clinton’s emails during her tenure as SoS, especially surrounding Benghazi. As Pompeo questioned Hillary during the Benghazi hearings in 2013, I hope he can make public what really went on in 2012.
The Conservative Treehouse has an excellent analysis of Tillerson’s and Trump’s approaches to foreign policy. Recommended reading.
Expect more reshuffling in the weeks to come. Other recent resignations include Hope Hicks, his communications advisor who used to work for Ivanka, and his personal aide John McEntee. That said, Trump has hired a replacement for Gary Cohn, Fox’s Larry Kudlow.
We will see more of the true President Trump this year. As CNN puts it, we’re now looking at Trump unleashed.