Donald Trump can’t be trusted on foreign policy – and his top team know it

Rex Tillerson, by all accounts, was ready to quit by the summer. He expressed his astonishment at the sheer ignorance of Trump when it came to foreign relations, and was publically undermined by the President

Kim Sengupta
Thursday 05 October 2017 17:31 BST
Rex Tillerson reaffirmed his commitment to the President in an unscheduled press conference – but many remain sceptical
Rex Tillerson reaffirmed his commitment to the President in an unscheduled press conference – but many remain sceptical (Cliff Owen/AP)

While the focus was on the terrible massacre in Las Vegas, some remarkable developments were taking place involving the President’s senior men in Washington. Rex Tillerson held a press conference to reassure that he was not going to resign. And, at the same time, he pointedly refused to deny that he had called Donald Trump a moron.

Tillerson will continue his discreet direct talks with Pyongyang, having set up the channel through diligent diplomacy in an attempt to defuse a spiralling confrontation in which Trump has repeatedly threatened to destroy North Korea. In carrying on with the talks the US Secretary of State is ignoring Trump, who has publicly dismissed them as a waste of time.

Just the day before, General James Mattis told Congress that the nuclear deal with Iran was working and should not be scrapped. He stressed that this was also the view of the other international signatories to the agreement with Tehran. The US Defence Secretary was openly contradicting Trump, who has repeatedly vowed to tear up the deal. This follows Tillerson forcing the President in July to grudgingly certify that Iran was complying with the agreement.

At the same time reports have surfaced that Mattis, Trump’s National Security Advisor, Lieutenant General HR McMaster and his Chief of Staff General John Kelly have renewed their pact to ensure that not all three will ever be abroad at the same time. They will ensure that at least one will remain in the country to monitor orders coming from the White House.

This is quite a scenario even by the extraordinary standards of the Trump administration. It is as if some of his most senior men have decided that it is their patriotic duty to protect the country from the President’s worst mistakes. He is facing steady and determined opposition on key issues of foreign policy in the National Security Council with senior members making no secret of their disagreements with him.

Tillerson and Mattis have long become frustrated by being undermined by Trump and people close to Trump. One of the major flashpoints was over the current confrontation between Qatar and a Saudi-led alliance. The President tweeted attacks on Qatar while the State Department was criticising the Saudis for making unreasonable demands.

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Mattis and Tillerson were in Sydney, clearing up after the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific partnership and the Paris Climate Accord and, say their aides, were “blindsided” by the partisan statement coming from the White House.

Asked about his reaction, Tillerson said “I am not involved in how the President constructs his tweets, when he tweets, why he tweets, what he tweets.” The Secretary of State became convinced that Trump’s statements were really coming from the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, who had cultivated the President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. A “close associate” of Tillerson told the media “Rex put two and two together and concluded that this absolutely vacuous kid (Kushner) was running a second foreign policy out of the White House family quarters…What a mess”.

Mattis, too, was authorising people to speak on his behalf. One senior officer commented “every time we have asked the Qataris for something they have said “yes”. They have been absolutely first rate on Isis. The Saudis have been nothing but trouble, in Yemen especially. Yemen has been a disaster, a stain…and now this is going on”.

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General David Petraeus, the former head of the US military and a Mattis ally, pointed out that the Saudis had attacked Qatar for “backing terrorism” by hosting Hamas and the Taliban when, in fact, Qatar had invited the two groups at the specific request of Washington and the White House should know this.

Tillerson and Mattis went on to make a number of public displays of support for Qatar. Trump is said to have been furious, but there was no admonition from the White House, showing that a President beleaguered by problems, not least the investigation into his Russian links, and with key aides already resigning, was not in a position to confront the Secretary of State and the Defence Secretary.

Relations did not improve and differences came to be highlighted regularly. When Trump defended neo-Nazis and other far-right groups in Charlottesville, Tillerson refused to back him, saying instead “the President speaks for himself”. Trump is said to have been irked, but the matter rested.

The discord continued. Tillerson was appalled by Trump’s inappropriately political speech to a Boy Scouts jamboree. Tillerson is said to have despaired to aides that it was impossible to stop Trump from embarrassing himself and the administration. The chief executive of Boy Scouts of America, an organisation Tillerson once headed, had to make a public apology for Trump’s speech.

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Tillerson, by all accounts, was ready to quit by the summer. People close to him said he had been talked out of drafting a letter of resignation by his closest allies, Mattis and Kelly. He expressed his astonishment at the sheer ignorance of Trump when it came to foreign relations. They stressed this actually added to the argument for Tillerson not jettisoning his post. The Vice President, Mike Pence, also stepped in, promising the Secretary of State that there will be cohesion on foreign policy in future and the undermining of his position would stop.

That has not happened. Last weekend Tillerson disclosed that he had established channels to North Korea to find a peaceful way out of the crisis. Trump saw newspaper reports the next morning and complained, in a tweet, that Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man”, thus undermining the Secretary of State with not just Pyongyang but international allies.

Trump, in his short Presidency, has already lost a Chief of Staff, a National Security Advisor, Health Secretary, a press secretary and two communications directors. He has fired the Director of the FBI, and belittled his Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General. He will, however, face strong opposition, not least from prominent people from his own party, if he seeks to sack the senior members of the administration standing up to him.

Just today Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, intervened to say “Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis and Chief of Staff Kelly work very well together to make sure that policies we put forth around the world are sound and coherent. There are other people within the administration that don’t. I hope they stay because they are valuable to the national security of our nation. These are the people that help separate our country from chaos and I support them very much.”

The words are quite extraordinary, providing, while giving a ringing endorsement of the men, a deeply alarming view of the state of Donald Trump's administration.

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