Not long after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired, President Trump told reporters, “I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want.”
That may be the main takeaway from Tillerson’s firing: Trump is gradually shedding people and personnel who were restraining him, instead doing what he wants to do. Trump recently imposed steel and aluminum tariffs over internal objections, a move that was followed by the resignation of top economic adviser Gary Cohn, who was described by the president as a “globalist” and “not quite as strong on those tariffs.”
Iran nuclear talks
Tillerson was encouraging Trump to keep the Iran deal in place; he was a voice inside the administration for staying in the Paris climate treaty; he encouraged diplomacy with North Korea at a time when the president was reproaching him on Twitter—the medium through which the secretary of state was eventually dismissed—for pursuing futile negotiations.
Replacing Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, as Trump hopes to do, increases the likelihood that the nuclear deal former President Obama negotiated with Iran will be terminated. It also signals a harder line on North Korea ahead of planned face-to-face talks between Trump and “little rocket man” Kim Jong Un.
Taken together with the tariffs and Trump’s unilateral decision to talk with the North Korean dictator in defiance of the foreign policy establishment, it is a signal to the world that the president is going to do whatever he feels necessary for protecting American interests—even if the professionals don’t like it.
Profile | Mike Pompeo
The big exception for many of Trump’s critics will be Russia: Tillerson’s firing comes the day after he went further than the White House press secretary in blaming Russia for the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain. Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee also closed its Russia investigation and exonerated Trump—prematurely, according to Democrats—the previous day.
But Pompeo is arguably more hawkish with regard to Russia than was Tillerson and has never doubted Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. It is unlikely that US policy toward Russia would become more conciliatory in a Pompeo-run State Department.
Instead Trump will have a secretary of state who more clearly speaks for him than the hapless Tillerson and who is more closely aligned with him on major international issues.
In a sense, that is a victory for “nationalists” over “globalists” inside the administration. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon reportedly sent a journalist a celebratory text about Tillerson’s departure. The Trump White House is projecting “America First” on steroids.
Profile | General James “Mad Dog” Mattis
Yet it is also a win for a particular version of America First that is somewhat at odds with the way Trump campaigned as a skeptic of foreign wars. Pompeo’s nomination was celebrated by Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who are both hawks and internationalists. Sen. Rand Paul, who agreed with Trump that the Iraq war was a “disaster,” voted against Pompeo becoming CIA director.
Paul’s vote could be more important this time around. The Republicans’ Senate majority is even smaller, 51-49. Many Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, backed Pompeo for CIA director but they could make his confirmation hearings for his new position difficult. It is therefore not guaranteed that Pompeo will actually become secretary of state.
It is however another sign that cultivating good relations with the president is essential for success inside the Trump administration. Tillerson never really denied calling Trump a “moron.” Along with Defense Secretary James Mattis, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff John Kelly, he was viewed as an attempted moderating influence on the president—but not a particularly effective one.
Profile | General John F Kelly
Tillerson was not even very popular with those who agreed with his preference for diplomacy over confrontation. This is largely because he was perceived as presiding over the State Department’s marginalization. He was certainly at the helm as it was being downsized.
This made Tillerson too isolated to perform well. If Pompeo is indeed his successor, he will not initially share that problem.
When Ronald Reagan was president, conservatives used to plead with his more moderate and establishment-friendly advisers to “Let Reagan be Reagan.” Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski has exhorted current White House staffers and Cabinet members to “Let Trump be Trump.”
It looks like Lewandowski and the hawks will get their wish. Those hoping for a more restrained and realistic foreign policy may not be so lucky.
W. James Antle III is politics editor of the Washington Examiner.