Not too long ago, reports surfaced that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had nearly resigned at some point over the summer over quarrels with the president on our policies toward Qatar and Iran, among other things. It became known that Tillerson had referred to the president as “a moron,” which the secretary never denied. Naturally, all of that news was accompanied by rumors that Tillerson would soon quit or be forced out of his position.
Yet, there was some rather serious pushback against the idea that Tillerson would be fired. John Hudson of BuzzFeed News reported that any attempt to axe Tillerson would come at a heavy cost to the president due to a suicide pact:
In recent weeks, Tillerson’s top aides have expressed increasing exasperation over questions about the secretary’s fate. Their view is that, yes, Tillerson has been frustrated by the president’s tweets and fights over staffing decisions, but has no intention of leaving his job.
One US official expressed confidence in Tillerson’s status due to a so-called “suicide pact” forged between Defense Secretary James Mattis, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and Tillerson, whereby all three cabinet secretaries vow to leave in the event that the president makes moves against one of them.
According to the reports, Chief of Staff John Kelly has crafted a plan that would see Tillerson replaced at the State Department by CIA director Mike Pompeo. In turn, Pompeo would be replaced at Langley by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas.
This is sure to unsettle the intelligence community and the foreign policy establishment. Pompeo is already seen as too political for the CIA, but he’s a lamb in that category compared to the combative Senator Cotton.
Perhaps this is why the news is being presented as John Kelly’s decision. The New York Times says Kelly “developed the transition plan” but it’s “not immediately clear whether Mr. Trump has given final approval” to it. The Washington Post says “the plan, hatched by White House chief of staff John F. Kelly, is expected to be set in motion over the next few weeks, and has broad support within Trump’s inner circle,” but likewise won’t say whether Trump has signed off.
Clearly the White House is floating this rather than simply announcing it, and they want Kelly’s imprimatur to help ward off the expected backlash. On one level, it’s clear that Tillerson is going to go soon, one way or the other. Opponents of Pompeo and Cotton can’t seriously think that they can fight these moves by keeping Tillerson in place. The suicide pact no longer makes sense given that Tillerson doesn’t want to stay much past the new year.
It’s also difficult to oppose a president when he wants to fill key positions with people he trusts, and Pompeo has already been confirmed once by the Senate while Cotton is a member of the Senate, so defeating their confirmations would be a major uphill climb.
Still, I can’t think of any responsible person on either side of the political divide who will welcome these moves, mainly because both men are so obviously ill-suited for the positions they’d be filling.
We’ll have to watch carefully for the backlash. Defense Secretary James Mattis has a lot of juice but he probably won’t wage a frontal assault. If he attempts to cut this off, it will be subtle and have some deniability. He may not fight it at all if he concludes it’s a battle he has no prospect of winning, but we’ll then have to see how that sits with him. Will he start looking for the exit, too?