Tillerson Firing Could Harm Coming Foreign Policy Agenda

Yesterday, it was announced that President Trump had fired his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

The announcement that came via the president’s Twitter account explained that some important administration positions would be reshuffled now that Tillerson’s post is vacant. Mike Pompeo, the former Tea Party congressman who until this point was in charge of the CIA, will take over the State Department. Gina Haspel, Pompeo’s deputy, will replace her former boss as CIA director, and become the first woman ever to hold that position.

Tillerson’s departure came rather abruptly to many Republicans. Several senior aides in both chambers of Congress told news sources they were given no heads up on the President's decision to replace the Secretary of State. Apparently, Tillerson himself found out he was fired only after an aide showed him the President’s tweet. "[We found out from] Twitter. And news alerts, just like everyone else, apparently," one senior GOP aide who works on foreign policy said.

While the news may have been delivered a bit shockingly, no observer of Washington can really say they are surprised.

Trump and Tillerson have been at odds for much of the year they have worked together. Tillerson has been less on-board with Trump’s aggressive America-first agenda and has frequently taken a more benign stance on many foreign policy issues. Back in December for instance, while tensions with North Korea were still high, Tillerson was put down by the administration after suggesting a meeting between US and North Korean diplomats. Indeed, over the past several months, Tillerson has publically taken stances contrary to the President on topics ranging from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the American response to Russia’s cyber aggression. Responding to questions about Tillerson’s firing, Trump told reporters that he and the former Secretary actually “got along very well” but “disagreed on things...we were not really thinking the same,” adding that “really, it was a different mindset, a different thinking.”

The challenge for the administration now is going to be putting together a State Department team to take over the myriad major diplomacy issues currently on the table. One looming topic is Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sometime before the end of May (ironic, given the aforementioned reception Tillerson received when he suggested a similar meeting). Planning for the execution of this meeting, delineating prerequisites and conditions while keeping a steady hand on current sanctions and punitive policies against Pyongyang, will be a difficult act to pull off. Bringing in new State Department leadership simultaneously just adds another layer of logistical complexity.

In addition to specific challenges the upheaval in the State Department has brought about, there is a more general issue created by Tillerson’s recent firing. The Trump presidency has had one of the highest turnover rates of administration personnel. In the 14 months since taking office, over 20 notable positions in the executive branch have changed hands, many at the direct behest of the President. This creates not only a lack of job security for individual officials but also a perceived lack of credibility when facing foreign partners. As Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi put it:

“Whenever Secretary Tillerson’s successor goes into meetings with foreign leaders, his credibility will be diminished as someone who could be here today and gone tomorrow.”

This is a legitimate concern, especially when trying to negotiate some of the major foreign debacles that the US is connected to at the moment, from the crisis on Korean Peninsula to countering Iran’s aggression through the Middle East. The only thing that counters this image is the administration keeping a steadfast course when it comes to its foreign policy stances. If Trump and his team (whoever those individuals may be) maintain a coherent and consistent course, they may be able to keep guard their political currency enough to push forward America’s agenda.                  

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