As far as firings under President Donald Trump go, Rex Tillerson’s is not the most humiliating. That dishonor would have to go to former chief of staff, Reince Priebus. He learned he was fired through three Trump tweets and soon after was decoupled from the president’s motorcade.
But Tillerson’s departure is nonetheless a slap in the face to a former CEO who advised and quarreled with a man who used to play one on TV. As Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Steve Goldstein said in a statement Tuesday: “The Secretary did not speak to the President this morning and is unaware of the reason, but he is grateful for the opportunity to serve.” Ouch.
The truth is this was a long time coming. Inside the State Department, Tillerson’s allies have long whispered about the rumors of his imminent departure, referring to “Rexit.” Trump himself acknowledged Tuesday before boarding Air Force One for California that he and Tillerson had been discussing him leaving since the summer. They just disagreed on too much.
Tillerson had a close relationship with Defense Secretary James Mattis. They usually met at least once a week and were often aligned on important foreign policy tussles inside the national security cabinet. But over time, Tillerson found himself frozen out and in disagreement with the man who mattered most, Trump.
“When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible,” Trump told reporters Tuesday. “I guess he thought it was OK.” That’s important because Tillerson’s State Department is charged with prodding European allies to go along with fixes to the nuclear agreement ahead of the next deadline for Trump to certify Iran’s compliance.
Compare that with the man whom Trump has nominated to replace Tillerson, CIA Director Mike Pompeo. In his year leading the agency, Pompeo approved new authorities to target through intelligence operations leaders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. Inside the cabinet, Pompeo argued against certifying Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal while Tillerson made the case for not rocking the boat.
To get a flavor of how Pompeo approaches the nuclear pact, look no further than his work as a member of Congress representing his home district in Wichita, Kansas. After the agreement was completed in 2015, Pompeo worked tirelessly as a member of Congress to meet with European bankers, diplomats and CEOs to make the case that investing in Iran was not as safe as they were hearing from John Kerry, who was secretary of state at the time.
Pompeo laid out his arguments six weeks before the 2016 election in an essay for Foreign Policy with the pithy title “Friends Don’t Let Friends Do Business With Iran.” At the time, one European diplomat told me his country was taking its cues from the outgoing Obama administration on investment in Iran. Now it will be taking cues from the man who tried to warn them about this.
On two other important foreign policy areas, Russia and North Korea, the differences between Pompeo and Tillerson are less pronounced. Tillerson began his tenure as secretary of state seeking a reset of sorts with Russia. In his first visit to Moscow last year, he asked Russian President Vladimir Putin what he wanted from the U.S.-Russia relationship and on what areas the two countries could cooperate. This turned into negotiations over de-confliction zones in Syria, which the Russians have since violated.
Since the summer though, Tillerson had soured on Russia. On Monday, before he was fired, he told reporters that the nerve agent attack in the United Kingdom last week “clearly came from Russia.” Before that, Tillerson’s State Department was preparing new sanctions with the Treasury Department to target some of the entities and individuals charged last month by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for meddling online against the 2016 election.
Pompeo too has taken a harder line than Trump himself on Russia. As CIA director he said last April that WikiLeaks, the web community that posted the emails of prominent Democrats hacked by Russia’s military spy agency, would be treated as a “hostile intelligence service.” More recently, Pompeo’s CIA has stepped up intelligence sharing and contacts with Ukraine’s spy service, which is fighting a war on its eastern front against Kremlin operatives and Russian backed separatists.
Finally there is North Korea. Notably, Tillerson was on a trip through Africa when Trump announced that he had accepted an invitation — conveyed through a South Korean delegation — to meet with North Korea’s tyrant, Kim Jong Un. Two administration officials however tell me that this did not mean Tillerson was out of the loop on the planning over the weekend.
Tillerson was an early advocate for U.S. participation in talks with North Korea, though not at such a high level. To ease the way for such talks, Tillerson and Mattis wrote an op-ed last year that said the U.S. had no interest in regime change for North Korea. Nonetheless, when asked about the potential summit, Tillerson was cautious. He said planning remained in the “very early stages.”
That’s not exactly the kind of flattering hyperbole Trump would like to hear from his cabinet secretaries. Compare Tillerson’s response to that of Pompeo. Speaking about the prospect of a Trump-Kim meeting, the CIA director played up what Tillerson played down. “These are real achievements,” Pompeo told “Fox News Sunday” this week. “These are conditions that the North Korean regime has never submitted to in exchange for conversations.”
That’s just the sort of thing a media-obsessed president likes to hear about his foreign policy. No wonder Trump is elevating Pompeo from the shadows of the CIA to the spotlight of Foggy Bottom.