It’s another insane day at the White House, giving us further proof that in the Trump administration, everything comes down to the president - his hurt feelings, his anger, his demands for loyalty and his bizarre unwillingness to ever utter a discouraging word about Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Tuesday, President Donald Trump announced he has ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and will nominate as his replacement CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Little by little, we’re learning more about how the decision came down. Ashley Parker, Philip Rucker, John Hudson and Carol D. Leonnig at The Washington Post bring us this reporting on how Tillerson heard the news:
“White House officials said that - as Tillerson traveled through Africa last week - White House chief of staff John F. Kelly called to wake him up in the wee hours there Saturday to alert him that Trump had decided to replace him. Kelley then suggested Tillerson return to Washington as soon as possible.”
The story coming from the White House has changed over the course of the day; at first officials were saying that Trump fired Tillerson on Friday, while now we have the account of Kelly’s call. And in some versions, Kelly didn’t actually tell Tillerson he would be fired, instead just warning him darkly that “you may get a tweet.”
Then the State Department released a statement casting some doubt on whether it’s actually true that Tillerson was fired on Friday. “The Secretary did not speak to the President this morning and is unaware of the reason,” it said.
And then early Tuesday afternoon, Peter Alexander of NBC reported that the official who issued that statement, Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein, “is being fired for contradicting the account of Rex Tillerson’s dismissal.”
What other interesting thing happened recently that might help explain Tillerson’s ouster? On his way back to the United States - either after he was fired or after he knew he was about to get fired but hadn’t actually been fired yet - Tillerson told reporters that the recent poisoning in London of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal was “clearly” the work of the Russians, a sentiment shared by the British government. Skripal had become a double agent for the British, was caught and was eventually handed over in a spy swap.
This is not some kind of controversial opinion; indeed, the idea that Russia wasn’t behind Skripal’s attempted murder is simply laughable on its face. He was poisoned with an exotic chemical in a fashion plainly meant to draw maximum attention and make Russian responsibility clear, in order to send a deterrent message to anyone who might be thinking of crossing Putin.
And yet Trump and those who work for him are acting like it could have been Russia, but it could also have been the government of Liechtenstein or a One Direction splinter group. “We’re speaking with Theresa May today,” Trump said. “As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.” Here’s a prediction: the president will not be condemning Russia.
But let’s back up. The firing of Tillerson was hardly a surprise, and many people have been expecting it ever since it was reported in October that Tillerson had called Trump a “(expletive) moron” in a meeting with other administration officials (which Tillerson then refused to deny). Nobody likes to be called a moron, of course, but it had to have been particularly painful for someone as obviously insecure about their intellect as Trump is. And back in November, the New York Times reported that the White House had developed a plan to replace Tillerson with Pompeo.
But what’s most notable is that Tillerson wasn’t fired because he has been eviscerating the State Department, crushing staff morale and leading to an exodus of experienced diplomats. As Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker wrote in November, “In only ten months, Tillerson, the former C.E.O. of ExxonMobil, has presided over the near-dismantling of America’s diplomatic corps, chasing out hundreds of State Department employees and scaling back the country’s engagement with the world.”
That didn’t seem to bother the president. Speaking Tuesday, Trump cited the fact that Tillerson didn’t want to tear up the Iran nuclear agreement. Then he grew contemplative. “For whatever reason, chemistry, whatever it is. Why do people get along?” he asked. “I’ve always, right from the beginning from day one, I’ve gotten along well with Mike Pompeo.”
There were many reasons for his lack of rapport with Tillerson. But it’s hard to imagine that at a moment when Trump feels so enormously threatened by the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller III, Tillerson’s criticism of Russia didn’t play a role in the president’s thinking. As Anne Gearan and Carol Morello of The Post note:
“Tillerson emerged as one of the administration’s strongest voices critical of Russia. For months, he had been saying that Russia clearly interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, even as Trump shied away from any critical remarks.”
So the fullest summary of Tillerson’s service may be that he was a terrible secretary of state who was ultimately fired for his glimmers of sanity. We can now add him to the long and growing list of top officials who have been booted or resigned; on Monday Trump’s “body man” was abruptly fired and escorted from the White House. No doubt there’s an interesting story there, but what we’ve seen over and over is that incompetence or corruption is seldom what gets you shown the door in the Trump administration.
Instead, you get fired when you disagree with the president or embarrass him. That is, if you haven’t already fled in a desperate attempt to save your reputation.
“It’s not personal,” said “The Godfather’s” Michael Corleone, a strong leader who also struggled at times to retain his underlings’ loyalty. “It’s strictly business.”
But when Trump is president, it’s always personal.