When it comes to the fine art of diplomacy one thing trumps all else – chemistry between the president and his secretary of state. President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson didn’t have it. And so now Tillerson is out of a job.
Beltway foreign policy experts might be flabbergasted that President Trump announced Tuesday that he has fired Tillerson and wants to replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. But it seems pretty clear that that the president and Tillerson never had the chemistry to make this marriage work in the first place.
The president said Tuesday morning that he and Tillerson disagreed on too many issues to work well together. “We were not really thinking the same,” the president told reporters. “Really, it was a different mind-set, a different thinking.”
Pompeo will need to be confirmed by the Senate to take over as secretary of state. Before heading the CIA he was a Republican member of Congress from Kansas. The president said he was naming Dr. Gina Haspel, Pompeo’s deputy at the CIA, to succeed him as the next director.
The move to oust Tillerson makes sense. With the diplomatic storm that is coming, Trump needs the right team to guide him through some tough challenges ahead.
In the next few months, the Trump administration has some pretty big national security challenges it must tackle. Most pressing of all: what to do about North Korea?
In fact, according to a report by Fox News, the president decided to make this decision ahead of the expected upcoming summit between him and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
While it might be highly disruptive, making the move now makes sense. If Tillerson was against the potential summit, and President Trump felt that he and Tillerson did not have the needed working relationship to make sure the president was ready for what could be the ultimate of meetings, then this paring had to be terminated – ASAP.
President Trump simply can’t walk into that summit, or even prep for it, without having not only top-tier people he can trust but also people he has good chemistry with. This might explain some of the reason needed to make the move – and make it now.
In the next few weeks, the Trump administration will be involved in a high-stakes poker game with North Korea that is highly reminiscent of the backroom dealing that took place during the Cold War or summitry that takes place with China and other great powers. The stakes could not be higher.
Important questions will need to be decided. Where will this potential summit with North Korea take place? Who will accompany the president on the trip? What happens if North Korea makes demands like the removal of sanctions before the summit can take place? Will the administration ask for a roadmap of what North Korea will do to rid itself of its nuclear weapons program?
Additional questions to be answered: What will the Trump administration and U.S. allies South Korea and Japan offer to North Korea if it is willing to denuclearize? Will the U.S. and its allies, for example, open diplomatic ties with the North? Sign a peace treaty?
This most likely explains why Trump let Tillerson go. When you combine the countless number of questions and scenarios on the North Korea issue – and compound that with issues like renegotiating NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), the Iran nuclear deal, what to do about Syria, and the always complex challenge of Russia – President Trump needs a secretary of state he has confidence in. Since this was not the case, it was time for Tillerson to go.
But what happens next is what matters. The Trump administration, to be generous, has had a large amount of churn. The president needs to move quickly to remove any other top official he feels needs to go.
In fact, it appears that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is next on the chopping block.
And who knows what else is to come?