Trump shows Tillerson the door; Mike Pompeo is new US Secretary of State

By Prarthana Mitra

US President Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday, naming CIA director Mike Pompeo as his replacement, pending Senate approval. Tillerson’s ouster was announced by Trump in a tweet, which also named Pompeo as the new Secretary of State, and CIA veteran Gina Haspel as the first woman director of the spy agency to replace him.

In a speech made soon after his firing, Tillerson said it was “most important to ensure an orderly and smooth transition at a time when the country continues to face significant policy and national security challenges.”

Tillerson is the second high profile exit from the Trump administration in the past week—economic advisor Gary Cohen resigned on March 7.

His term will officially end at midnight March 31.

No warning

Tillerson, who only hours before arrived back to the US from a multi-country visit to Africa, reportedly was given no indication that he would be out of a job. Steve Goldstein, Tillerson’s top spokesman at the State Department, said Tillerson learnt of his firing through Trump’s tweet.

Goldstein was fired soon after.

Open secret: Tensions between POTUS and Tillerson

The “frequent tension” between Trump and Tillerson had been apparent for a long time, with the President showing a growing disregard for Tillerson’s policy suggestions. Tillerson was known to disagree with Trump on many things, the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for instance.

Just hours before his ouster Tillerson had contradicted the White House in comments about the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal in the UK. Although the Trump administration had said it was standing with the UK in its probe into the poisoning, it did not name Russia, who the British government has blamed. Tillerson, on the other hand, said that the poison used most certainly  “came from Russia.”

Donald Trump has named Mike Pompeo as his new Secretary of State. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tillerson’s exit comes only days after it was announced that the US and North Korea would hold a first-of-its-kind meeting, with Trump and Kim Jong-un expected to meet by May. Although news of the upcoming meet is an affirmation of sorts of Tillerson’s insistence on keeping the communication channels open with North Korea. In fact, Tillerson was one of the few in Trump’s inner circle to suggest talks even as the president appeared to want to push the US into a nuclear showdown with North Korea.

Despite being the US’s top diplomat, Tillerson was often kept in the dark about the policy decisions of an unpredictable president. Most recently, Tillerson, who was in Kenya at the time, was taken by surprise by Trump’s announcement to meet Kim. Just a day earlier, he had told reporters that negotiations were a long way off.

In the remarks made after his firing, Tillerson notably did not thank Trump but only mentioned receiving a phone call from ‘the president’.

What next for US foreign policy?

All attention will be focused on how Pompeo plans for and handles the meeting between Trump and Kim. North Korea is yet to respond publicly to Trump’s acceptance of its invitation to hold talks.

Also in the offing is the release of Jared Kushner-crafted Mideast peace plan, though the administration is reportedly afraid the plan will be rejected by the parties involved as soon as it is made public.

The Iran nuclear deal continues to remain a major policy concern. Although Tillerson supported the deal, Pompeo is expected to side with Trump on it. In fact, in comments made after announcing Tillerson’s firing, Trump said the Iran deal was one on the issues on which the two “were not really thinking the same,” while he and Pompeo “have a very similar thought process.”

The State Department also remains in a state of churn, with many important ambassadorial positions vacant and key sections unmanned.