President Donald Trump's White House team seems to be in complete disarray. The way West Wing staffers have been fired or have resigned gives the impression that Trump's house has imploded.
The manner in which Donald Trump fired Rex Tillerson on March 13 was not unusual, given the way Trump has behaved in the past with other officials in the White House. On that morning Trump tweeted, “Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all.”
Trump in four sentences fired Tillerson, appointed Mike Pompeo, who was the CIA Director, as the new Secretary of State, and Gina Haspel as the new CIA Director. Both Pompeo and Haspel will have to go through the rigour of Senate confirmation before they can formally start working.
Trump did not assign any reason for sacking Tillerson. He, however, later in the day while speaking to journalists at the South Lawn of the White House, said he had differences of opinion with Tillerson on many issues. Trump cited the Iran nuclear deal which he wanted to scrap, but Tillerson did not. Trump claimed that he and Pompeo think the same way and that he would do a fantastic job. Pompeo became close to Trump as he personally delivered intelligence briefings and is believed to be obeisant towards Trump.
Tillerson was in Kenya on March 10, where he got a call from Chief of Staff John Kelly that the president was unhappy with him. Soon after Tillerson returned to Washington on March 13, Trump tweeted about replacing him. Nothing could have been more indecent, humiliating and surprising than this tweet for the secretary of state of the United States—one of the four most senior positions in the US government. Tillerson is the first secretary of state to be fired in the post-WWII era.
In his departure message, Tillerson thanked the American people for “acts of kindness” and his department's officers for their “honesty and integrity.” He conspicuously did not thank or praise Trump.
The “Rexit” was not long in coming. Since October 2017 Rex Tillerson's position has been rather shaky. That was because Tillerson at a briefing at the Pentagon had allegedly called Trump a moron. Since then there have been repeated rumours that Tillerson resigned. Trump and Tillerson had serious differences over strategy in key areas of foreign policy: Iran nuclear deal, China, Middle East, Paris Climate Accord, North Korea, TPP, etc.
Tillerson also hardened his stance towards Moscow, much to Trump's displeasure. When Trump without consulting Tillerson accepted Kim Jong-un's invitation to meet, Tillerson advised the president to wait and prepare. But Trump was in a hurry and tweeted that Tillerson was “wasting his time to negotiate with Little Rocket Man … save your energy Rex.” All these episodes only reveal that the two men were not in sync on US foreign policy. Trump's tweets also showed that he had little respect for his cabinet colleague.
Tillerson's dismissal comes on the heels of another development that has greatly relieved and energised Trump. On March 12, the US House Intelligence Committee said that it had completed investigating Russian involvement in the 2016 US election and found no collusion between President Trump's campaign and Moscow's attempt to influence the results.
Trump chose Tillerson as secretary of state thinking the distinguished CEO of ExxonMobil, one of the largest companies in the world, would know how to handle America's global interest. But that belief soon turned sour as Trump found that Tillerson was slow and did not toe Trump's line.
Coming to Rex Tillerson's stint as head of the State Department, many say that he was a lame-duck secretary of state. Foreign Policy said Tillerson belly-flopped as secretary of state. Over the past 14 months, Tillerson hardly got any positive news about his performance. Washington Post blogger Daniel Drezner referred to Tillerson as an “unmitigated disaster” and called for his resignation. Politico accused him of “running the State Department into the ground.”
There were two major reasons for Tillerson's non-performance. Firstly, top positions in the State Department remain unfilled, morale has hit rock bottom, and experienced senior diplomats have resigned in large numbers. Tillerson, like Donald Trump, had no vision or policy to face diplomatic challenges facing America.
Secondly, whenever Tillerson wanted to do something he was constantly undermined by Steve Bannon, ex-Trump chief strategist, and Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law. Constant conflicts and disloyalty in Trump's team in the West Wing created so much chaos that Tillerson never got to overcome them and get close to the president.
Rex Tillerson is not the first senior official of the Trump team to be sacked. Since taking over the Presidency in January 2017, Donald Trump has either sacked many of his officials or they have resigned. The number as it stands now is 20—of them 4 were fired and the rest resigned. They include National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, FBI Director James Comey, Chief of Staff Reince Preibus, Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, Director National Economic Council Gary Cohn and now Rex Tillerson. Now that Tillerson is gone, will Mike Pompeo really push Trump's “America first” agenda?
When a US President loses one or two senior officials it can be seen as a misfortune. But when he loses nearly two dozen colleagues it certainly reflects on the President and is seen as reckless. One wonders who in Trump's team is next in line to be kicked out.
Mahmood Hasan is a former ambassador and secretary of the Bangladesh government.