Reports surfaced Thursday morning, November 30, that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was on the way out of the cabinet.
The New York Times said, citing unnamed “senior administration officials,” said that the Secretary had earned the displeasure of President Donald Trump on Iran, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea, pushing back against Trump’s preferred policy with regard to each of those countries.
Supposedly, the developing White House plan was to replace Tillerson at State with Mike Pompeo, now the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, because Pompeo is more in accord with POTUS’ thinking on those subjects than Tillerson.
Also, according to these reports, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) would then replace Pompeo at the CIA.
The State Department denied the story soon after its appearance. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, speaking for the White House, said that “when the President loses confidence in someone, they will no longer serve in the capacity that they’re in” and that Tillerson “is here.” The wording was a bit backhanded and Ms. Sanders passed up prodding to be more direct: but it sounds (sort of) like a White House denial of the story.
But that hasn’t stopped commenters from commenting – which is what they do. Sohrab Ahmari, at the neoconservative journal Commentary, in a generally friendly piece on Tillerson, says that the latest report is merely one manifestation of persistent rumors, and that the President’s habit of undercutting Tillerson’s diplomacy “with his wild tweeting,” is one of the supports for them.
The View from the Right
Breitbart jumped with some enthusiasm on the Tillerson-is-on-the-way-out bandwagon. Adam Shaw wrote a piece there postulating that it is the President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is “reportedly” behind the plan, because Tillerson declined to support, with a State Department delegation, Ivanka Trump’s trip to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in India.
Shaw says that Tillerson has long had a “fraught relationship” with Kushner and his wife Ivanka, and speaks of them slightingly as “the royal family.” Two conservatives writing at the Washington Examiner espouse the same view, that Tillerson is hanging on but is the continuing target of Trump family animosity.
Aaron Colen, writing for The Blaze, made a point many have been making, that Sanders’ comments on the Times story fell well short of “a denial of its accuracy.”
By Friday morning another story line had emerged: POTUS doesn’t want to fire Tillerson, but the leak to the Times was a tactical one, intended to shame Tillerson into resigning. If so this is a variant of a technique that the White House at least arguably attempted to use at the expense of the Attorney General months ago. It didn’t work in that case: Sessions remains AG.
But it may be that Tillerson has less of a stomach for public shaming than Sessions proved to have.
The View from the Left
While commenters on the right were trying to figure out how much of the reporting was true, their counterparts on the left were more concerned with what would follow were the story true, what difference Pompeo at State or Cotton at CIA would make. They generally conclude that both moves would be from bad to worse.
Fred Kaplan, at Slate, says that “if Cotton gets the nod to replace Pompeo at the CIA, the results are almost certain to be disastrous.”
Likewise, Scott Dworkin, an MSNBC contributor, says that “this shuffling around does nothing more than cause chaos & confusion,” which Dworkin considers “another big win for Putin.” Dworkin says that the CIA “ is supposed to be an independent source of intelligence as far removed as possible from political pressures,” and thus it “should not be led by a partisan firebrand,” which is precisely what it is getting with Cotton.
Jeet Heer, at The New Republic, discusses the proposed shake-up in an article with the revealing headline, “Trump’s descent Into Madness is a Worldwide Crisis.” Heer has no very high opinion of Tillerson, but he is happy that Tillerson has opposed “tearing up the Iran nuclear deal and [has advocated for] a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff with North Korea.” Tillerson, in Heer’s view, has acted as an imperfect brake to Trump’s otherwise extremely militaristic tendencies, whereas both Pompeo and Cotton seem likely to serve as accelerants.