In yet another “apprentice-style” dismissal, US President Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—his 20th dismissal as president—and replaced him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, while nominating Gina Haspel, a CIA veteran, to replace Pompeo at the spy agency.
Much has been told about why Tillerson was fired. Jon Sopel, BBC's North America editor, put much of the blame on Tillerson's alleged reference that his boss was a “moron.” He might be right. After all, America's 45th POTUS is extremely sensitive about what others say about him.
The White House and Tillerson disagreed on a wide range of issues including the Iran Deal, Paris Agreement, North Korea and the Qatar crisis. As Trump famously clarified that he called the final shot when it comes to foreign policy, Tillerson was sidelined on important agendas—such as the Middle East Peace Process, which is led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner and personal lawyer Jason Greenblatt—and often publicly undercut by no other than the president himself.
Tillerson was also caught off guard by Trump's surprise announcement on March 9 of a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which came following a meeting between American officials including Pompeo and the visiting South Korean delegation that had met with Kim Jong Un.
The rumour of firing Tillerson was in the air for some time which Trump derided as “fake news”. By eventually firing Tillerson and replacing him with Pompeo, however, Trump has borne out two November 2017 “fake” stories by The New York Times.
He postponed the dismissal for three and a half months probably because “the element of surprise” that he had wanted to use was broken due to the leak. Now that the North Korea issue requires the involvement of the State Department, Trump, at this moment, cannot afford to have a secretary of state who would disagree with him at every possible phase. He needed a man who would happily sync with the White House, maybe someone like Mike Pompeo who Trump says has “a similar thought process” like him.
However, Trump now has two nominations to finalise in the Senate. Both are likely to prove painful for the president. In his senate hearing, Mike Pompeo will certainly be grilled about issues about which he has differences with the president. He will surely be asked about his hawkish worldview.
Gina Haspel is a particularly controversial figure inside the CIA, having run a secret “black-site” in Thailand where suspected Islamist terrorists were tortured by waterboarding, an interrogation technique which John McCain termed as a part of “one of the darkest chapters in American history.”
With Republican Senator Thad Cochran resigning on April 1, the Republican margin in the Senate will be reduced to one vote only. If Democrats can hold together, they could sink either nomination with only one Republican defector. Already, the GOP senator Rand Paul, also a member at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, explicitly expressed his intention to oppose both the nominations and hinted to use “filibuster”—if needed—to thwart the nominations, while John McCain raised observations about the CIA pick, Haspel.
Meanwhile, Special Counsel Robert S Mueller's investigators questioned George Nader—a Lebanese-American interlocutor who has served as the advisor to the United Arab Emirates' Crown Prince and de-facto ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan—on whether there were any efforts by the UAE to buy political influence by funnelling money into Trump's campaign.
BBC obtained some leaked emails that showed a lobbying effort by the UAE to get Tillerson fired because of his failure to support an effort by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to isolate Qatar. Therefore, it is almost certain that Mueller's team would closely scrutinise Trump's latest cabinet reshuffle.
The fact that Tillerson's dismissal came shortly after he blamed Russia for the murder of its defecting agents in British soil also stood in contrast to the silent position of the White House in this issue. This aspect might also interest the Special Counsel.
Of all, Tillerson's departure from the State Department is likely to have a profound implication for the Middle East. With Tillerson, one of the “adults” in the administration, gone and Trump reportedly planning to make some high-level shuffles in the ensuing days, the president is set to end up being surrounded by Iran-hawks. That means he would be advised to take strong actions against the growing Iranian influence in the Middle East, emboldening Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel, and putting the United States on a collision course with Russia.
On Tuesday, Russia warned that it had information that the United States planned to bomb Syrian targets and that it would respond militarily if Russian lives were threatened.
It is still premature to say whether Trump wants such an escalation with Russia. With hawkish advisers around him, however, it is also hard to predict how long he would resist the temptation to get a bit more involved in the Middle East.
Nazmul Ahasan is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.