The Tuesday dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made him the third senior official to depart President Trump’s administration in two weeks, along with communications director Hope Hicks and White House chief economic adviser Gary Cohn. Secretary of state is, in theory, a much more powerful job than the posts held by Cohn and Hicks. That’s “in theory” because it was never clear if Tillerson had the influence that his title usually conveys. Even so, it’s a major move — compounded by the fact that his named replacement is CIA Director Mike Pompeo, meaning another Cabinet-level position will also soon have a new person in the role.
To make some sense of all this, let’s look at this departure using our rubric of “Five Questions To Ask Every Time Someone Leaves the Trump Administration.”
1. How long was this person on the job?
Tillerson lasted just over a year. This is unusual: The last six secretaries of state all served four years, a full presidential term. A few recent secretaries of state have served short stints at the end of presidencies, but the last comparable departure was in 1982, when Alexander Haig stepped down after a year and a half, citing policy differences with President Ronald Reagan.
2. Was the departure planned?
Not really. There were rumors back in November that Pompeo would replace Tillerson, and Trump and Tillerson have long had a tense relationship. But his exit was announced suddenly, as opposed to other departures that are due to routine government personnel rotations.
3. Is there a clear reason for the departure?
Trump, in remarks explaining the firing, suggested that he and Tillerson differed on foreign policy issues. Trump specifically named the Iran nuclear deal; Tillerson reportedly favors the United States remaining involved in the deal even as the president has pushed for the U.S. to either change the deal or leave it. Trump suggested that he and Pompeo, in contrast, were more in sync on policy. That seems mostly true.
In fact, it’s worth considering this dismissal in the context of Cohn’s resignation last week. Is the president getting rid of advisers who might hold different views than he does, advisers who are more interested in cultivating the Washington establishment than the president? Tillerson’s appointment, for instance, was championed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, an influential figure in Republican foreign policy circles.
Pompeo is more hawkish in terms of policy views. (He has long opposed the Iran deal and the Paris climate accord, for example.) Pompeo, while supportive of the intelligence community’s view that Russia interfered in 2016 election, has at times downplayed the Russian role. At Trump’s urging, he met with a man who has suggested that the hacking of Democratic National Committee emails during the 2016 election was a conspiracy carried out by a DNC employee, not Russian figures.
There are rumors that former Reagan administration official and television personality Larry Kudlow will replace Cohn and that former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton will be appointed national security adviser, a post currently held by H.R. McMaster — another official with a tense relationship with the president.
If Kudlow and Bolton get those appointments, along with Pompeo’s promotion this week, Trump would be bringing in figures who are more loyal to him. But I don’t know exactly how this would affect policy, because they are all of the more hawkish and globalist mode that often conflicts with Trump’s instincts. I think Trump is showing signs of not liking the idea that his staff is there to rein him in, and the president may be trying to find people who agree with him already or are more willing to toe his line publicly.
Here’s another caveat to a policy-driven explanation for Tillerson’s departure: If Trump fired everyone who disagreed with him on policy issues, that might lead to the departure of lots more people, including senior figures like Secretary of Defense James Mattis and his daughter Ivanka. So I doubt Tillerson’s policy views are the only reason he’s gone.
4. How senior is the person who’s leaving?
The secretary of state has traditionally been considered the most prestigious job in the Cabinet. It’s fourth in the presidential line of succession (vice president, speaker of the House, Senate president pro tempore). But it was never clear that Tillerson had that much sway. The nation’s chief diplomat, for example, seemed out of the loop on the biggest diplomatic move of the Trump administration: last week’s announcement that Trump will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in an attempt to get Pyongyang to wind down its nuclear weapons program.
It’s hard to know if Trump’s core foreign policy will change that much, since he was largely already ignoring Tillerson. This may be a firing that makes sense in that it aligns the president’s staff more with his own views and removes one of the key Cabinet members who has had friction with the White House.
5. How easily can this person be replaced?
The White House has struggled to find communications directors in part because that job has lots of hassle but relatively limited power. I’m not surprised that Trump was able to announce, as Tillerson was removed, both the appointment of Pompeo at State and Gina Haspel to be the next CIA director. These are both prestigious posts, putting Haspel and Pompeo in charge of huge agencies, and they will likely be able to set policy on what I assume is a wide range of issues where Trump does not have defined views. (That is, if they both get confirmed. Haspel could face resistance from Senate Democrats and even some Republicans because of her work for the CIA in the early 2000s overseeing interrogations at “black sites” that critics say were tantamount to torture.)
The bottom line here is that Tillerson’s departure is not surprising and may not tell us much about the administration’s direction. What Pompeo does in this job is the big unknown and the reason why this switch matters.
If the American secretary of state is very hawkish and not really interested in diplomacy, which is Pompeo’s reputation, that could have important implications. Tillerson was already sidelining the State Department’s diplomatic core. I have a hard time seeing Pompeo restoring the diplomats’ power, and I think he might do more to limit their influence. I suspect that Pompeo, left to his own devices, would look for the U.S. to take aggressive action on Russia and not start talks with North Korea until it abandoned its nuclear program. But those positions are not in line with Trump.
The Tillerson era at State was a lot of noise but few accomplishments. I think Pompeo will do things. I’m just not totally sure what.