This morning, news broke that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has finally been fired and will be replaced by current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, not the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. In October, during the height of the “Tillerson is out” rumor period, Ambassador Haley stated that if offered the position of secretary of state, “I would not take it” and that “I want to be where I’m most effective” (read: not as Trump’s secretary of state).
At the time, trying to predict who would replace Tillerson had become a favorite Washington parlor game. Both the Washington Post and New York Times reported that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly had a plan to replace Tillerson with Pompeo. But in light of Tillerson’s firing, Haley’s comments now take on new meaning. It seems likely that Ambassador Haley already understood what Pompeo is sure to discover: being the face of Trump’s foreign policy is losing proposition.
According to former (more on that later) Under Secretary of State Steve Goldstein, Tillerson “did not speak to the President and is unaware of the reason” for his firing. But Tillerson’s relationship with the White House has always been rocky. Trump only met Tillerson twice before he was offered the secretary of state position and even before his nomination, Trump had already removed a major diplomatic policy area from the State Department’s purview; the Middle East peace process was given to the president’s international-affairs neophyte son-in-law Jared Kushner to direct.
In February 2017, the White House blocked Tillerson from hiring several of his own people including his first choice for deputy secretary of state, Elliott Abrams. Over the summer, U.S. allies (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt) publicly broke relations with Qatar—home to the massive Al Udeid U.S. military base. Tillerson and Trump disagreed on the correct course of action with Tillerson trying to diplomatically mend fences while Trump sought to align against Qatar.
In July, reports surfaced that Tillerson had called Trump “a moron,” an accusation that Tillerson did not immediately disavow. And last fall, Trump and Tillerson disagreed on whether to certify Iran’s compliance with the terms of the so-called “nuclear deal” (JCPOA). On Tuesday, Trump cited his difference of opinion on Iran as a reason for Tillerson’s firing stating, “When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible,” whereas Tillerson thought “it was okay. I wanted to either break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently. So we were not really thinking the same.”
The breaking point in the Trump-Tillerson relationship was probably the president’s decision to meet face-to-face with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Tillerson was not consulted prior to the announcement of a May meeting and his own efforts to open diplomatic discussions with the North Koreans had been undermined by President Trump only five months prior. In October, Trump tweeted: “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” And “… Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”
Until now, Pompeo has had the luxury of being engaged in major foreign policy decisions without then having to explain or defend them. As director of the CIA, Pompeo is not required to publicly defend every tweet or inconsistency the president utters. That changes now. As secretary of state, Pompeo will be put in the unenviable position of conveying U.S. foreign policy to our allies and foes, as well as the American people, even as those positions change without warning. Pompeo’s friendly relationship with the president will serve him well initially but will be tested with each contradictory statement. And it’s Pompeo—not the president—who will be blamed if policies are unsuccessful or seem to embarrass the president. Just ask Under Secretary of State Steve Goldstein who was fired today as well for making statements that the White House found unflattering. Goldstein only lasted 3 months on the job.
The list of former White House staff includes many people that the president “trusted.” The evidence suggests that the president’s trust is ephemeral and should not be interpreted as an impenetrable shield. Pompeo has a difficult, perhaps impossible, task ahead of him.
It now seems clear that Ambassador Haley understood the dangers earlier than most. Thus far, Ambassador Haley has successfully avoided the chaos of Trump’s inner circle and cabinet. She has gained respect from the foreign policy community which was initially skeptical of her qualifications as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She has taken tough stances, particularly with respect to funding for the Palestinians in UNESCO and the decision to relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, both of which earned her a lot of credit with pro-Israel national security hawks and earned her a prime speaking spot at this year’s AIPAC conference. She has spoken out forcefully against Russia and Iran’s support of the Assad regime in Syria and continued Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Haley’s star is rising fast in the Republican party and she has qualities that could make her a viable presidential nominee: executive experience as a former governor of a major state, and growing foreign policy experience in New York. While it’s unclear if White House Chief of Staff John Kelly ever made a strong push to replace Tillerson with Haley, it’s no wonder Haley was unequivocal in her objection to the position. Taking the position of secretary of state would have been a career killer, or at least damaged her otherwise glowing reputation.
For Pompeo, he may believe that his personal relationship with Trump will make him immune to the same contagions that weakened Tillerson. That seems overly optimistic. It’s probably more realistic to assume we’ll be having a similar conversation about Pompeo’s ouster this time next year. For Haley’s sake, I hope she can avoid the firing line’s bullets one more time.