The sacking of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State by Donald Trump was not unexpected. But it is still a highly significant development in a dysfunctional and chaotic administration, where a steady exodus of senior officials has been accompanied by an unprecedented degree of infighting and turbulence.
The latest sacking will continue this bitter vein of acrimony. Tillerson has not acquiesced quietly to the move, publicly stating that he was “unaware of the reason” for his departure. He had allegedly found out that he was fired through a Trump tweet. Under-Secretary at the State Department, Steve Goldstein, said “The Secretary had every intention of staying because of the critical progress made in national security.”
One of Tillerson’s last pronouncements on the issue of security had been about Britain. He had been the strongest among international statesmen in condemning Moscow for the attempted assassination of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, declaring that the nerve agent used in the attack “clearly came from Russia” and that there would be consequences.
In fact, he went further than Theresa May who had said that it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible. Russia, charged Tillerson, was “an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and life of their citizens”.
Trump, who had furiously tweeted about Muslim terrorist attacks (real and imaginary) in the West, had to be almost dragged to make a statement on the Salisbury poisoning, finally coming out with “It sounds to me like they believe it was Russia ... I would certainly take that finding as fact.”
He wanted to stress, however: “If we get the facts straight we will condemn Russia – or whoever it might be.”
Trump would not be drawn on Vladimir Putin’s possible culpability. Trump, who has criticised people around the world, has yet to say one single bad word about Putin since he got to the White House, inevitably fuelling the speculation on what the Kremlin may have on him.
There had been concern about Tillerson’s own closeness to Moscow when he was appointed Secretary of State by Trump. As CEO of ExxonMobil, he had been heavily involved in trading with Russia and had got to know Putin, who had awarded Tillerson Russia’s Order of Friendship medal in 2013. Photographs appeared widely in the media showing the two men meeting at the time of his Congressional confirmation hearing.
In office, however, Tillerson did not appear to be unduly supine towards the Kremlin. He was soon clashing with Trump and his coterie on a range of issues, including the President and his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s actions in the standoff between Qatar and a Saudi-led coalition, Trump’s threats to pull troops out of South Korea and destroy North Korea, Trump’s attempts to tear up the Iran nuclear deal, and even Trump’s highly inappropriate politicised speech to the Boy Scouts of America.
On more than one occasion, it emerged, the Secretary of State has called the President a “moron”.
Trump is expected to find Mike Pompeo much more malleable. The former Tea Party representative from Kansas was appointed CIA director to replace John Brennan who had become a strident critic of Trump. Brennan had said he was particularly “deeply saddened and angered” when Trump stood in front of the Agency’s memorial for its fallen to make bogus boasts about the size of his inauguration crowd.
As CIA director, Pompeo repeatedly misrepresented intelligence assessment on Russian interference in the US presidential election, falsely stating that the agencies had concluded that the Kremlin’s actions had no effect on the final result – when they have made no judgment on that.
He has, however, recently stated that Russia will probably try to influence the mid-term election.
Pompeo also backs Trump’s stance on Iran and efforts to dismantle an agreement which all the other signatories – Britain, France, Germany and Russia – say is working and want to preserve.
Like Trump he wants the US prison in Guantanamo Bay kept open, and defended the use of torture during the George W Bush administration, describing officials who carried out the mistreatment as “not torturers, but patriots”.
Pompeo’s successor at the CIA will be its first female director. She also has the distinction of being someone who has actually been personally accused of being responsible for the torture of suspects, and then destroying video evidence of their “enhanced interrogation” in a secret facility in Thailand. One of the suspects was reported to have been waterboarded 83 times in one month.
Senator John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner during the Vietnam War and who has called the torture of detainees in the Bush era as “one of the darkest chapters in American history”, said: “Ms Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program during the confirmation process.”
So Trump, beleaguered by special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into his Russia links, and increasingly isolated with just two people from his original senior White House team (Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner) still around, is making a fresh attempt to gather loyalists around him.
It remains to be seen, however, how long even Pompeo and Haspel survive in this toxic administration.
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