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March 14, 2018

Tillerson Had to Go, and Pompeo Is an Upgrade

Trump is reorganizing his foreign policy team ahead of a possible meeting with North Korea.

Rex Tillerson’s departure as secretary of state is just one part of a reordering of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy team ahead of a possible May meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Tillerson will stay in his post until March 31, but stated that he will delegate official duties to Deputy Secretary Jon Sullivan and that he will work toward “an orderly and smooth transition.”

Tillerson’s departure didn’t catch anyone by surprise, though the manner in which it took place may have. Since assuming the top position at the State Department at the beginning of the Trump administration, the former ExxonMobil CEO has had a tough time acclimating to life in the Trump administration. Some in Washington were astonished he lasted as long as he did.

Trump, who remained gracious and publicly thanked Tillerson for his service, admitted that he and Tillerson did not see eye to eye. “I actually got along well with Rex, but really it was a different mind-set, a different thinking,” Trump said. “When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible. I guess he thought it was okay. . . . So we were not really thinking the same.”

Iran was not the only area of disagreement between the two. Tillerson was also in favor of staying in the Paris climate accord and he wanted to keep the U.S. embassy in Israel in Tel Aviv. And while he deserves some credit for his work on getting North Korea to the negotiation table, Tillerson really undermined Trump’s larger plan. As Marc Thiessen put it, “By projecting weakness to Pyongyang, Tillerson was undercutting Trump’s message of strength — and thus making war more likely.”

In an editorial, The New York Sun notes, “The big danger at the Korean summit … is not that we fail to come to terms. It’s that we accept terms that would leave North Korea under the heel of a communist dictatorship. The temptations are going to be enormous.” Thus, Tillerson was a liability.

If Tillerson’s ouster suggests a reordering of U.S. diplomacy, so too does the man who has been tapped to replace him. Mike Pompeo, currently CIA director, seems to be more on Trump’s page on foreign policy, and it could suggest that the administration is looking to take a harder line on both Iran and North Korea. Pompeo is eminently qualified — he was first in his class at West Point, earned the rank of captain in the Army, received a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School, served three terms in the House and has run the CIA for more than a year.

Meanwhile, Trump picked CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel to replace Pompeo. Haspel will have to answer for her role in the CIA’s interrogation program during the Bush administration, during which she ran a black site in Thailand. Unanimous Republican support for her nomination in the Senate is not guaranteed.

This latest shakeup in the Trump administration may suggest that it’s a disorderly and chaotic place to work that some people just can’t get a handle on. Another way to look at the churn is to see the Trump administration as a dynamic organization that needs the right balance among its team members to work properly. Trump has always maintained that people are clamoring for an opportunity to work for the White House. Maybe he secretly wants to give them all a chance to do so before he leaves office. Or maybe it really is more akin to World Wrestling Entertainment.

Among the bigger departures are Gary Cohn, who resigned just last week as director of the National Economic Council after a disagreement over tariffs. White House Communications Director Hope Hicks called it quits on Feb. 28 after admitting to a House Intelligence Committee panel that she told “white lies” for Trump. Speechwriter David Sorensen and Staff Secretary Rob Porter both departed because of spousal abuse allegations. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price left in November after facing criticism for using private planes on government business. And who can forget Steve Bannon, the former strategist and architect of Trump’s election victory who left the White House last August to raise Cain on the campaign trail.

That’s a lot of turnover in 14 months. But back to the transition at the State Department, where we believe Pompeo is a major upgrade. Whether he’s able to stabilize the Cabinet is one thing, but a department full of career leftists needs a stronger leader than it’s had. We expect Pompeo will provide that and help guide American foreign policy in the right direction.

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