Most Americans first knew Donald Trump as the tough tycoon at the center of a popular reality TV show called “The Apprentice.”
The series followed teams of contestants competing for jobs on his staff and each episode ended in the same way: with Trump eliminating a participant by sternly looking him or her in the eye and saying “you’re fired!”
Rex Tillerson didn’t even get that.
For the first time in American history, the President of the United States dismissed his Secretary of State in a Tweet.
Yes, a tweet.
And not only did Trump fire Tillerson, but he set a whole chain reaction in motion — naming CIA Director Mike Pompeo as his choice to be the nation’s new top diplomat:
“Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen!”
Tillerson was never informed in advance by Trump who, by the way, described earlier reports that he wanted to replace the Secretary of State with the CIA Director as “fake news.”
Admittedly, the danger signs were there. Tillerson, who was in Africa mending relations last week, seemed caught off guard when he learned that President Trump had agreed to a meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. And there were indications Trump remained angry over reports Tillerson once called him “a moron” in the presence of other officials.
The only comment from the President on his decision to fire Tillerson came in an impromptu session with reporters on the White House lawn. Trump said, well, he just lacked chemistry with Tillerson, adding he knew the former Exxon-Mobil CEO would be far happier in the private sector.
Apparently, he has lots of political chemistry with Pompeo, noting they are on “the same wavelength.”
Among other things, they both hate the Iran nuclear deal, which comes up for another White House review this spring. Both also have used harsh rhetoric in the past — not exactly diplomatic — to refer to leaders in both Tehran and Pyonyang.
Tillerson was not exactly liked at the State Department, where he presided over proposed budget cuts and an exodus of seasoned Foreign Service officers. Pompeo might get the department more respect because he is on a much stronger footing with the White House, but there are concerns he is too political and too much of a hawk to understand the etiquette of diplomacy.
In a brief farewell statement at the State Department, Secretary Tillerson promised an orderly transition. He had kind words for the department staff and thanked the American people for the opportunity to serve. He never mentioned Donald Trump, except to note the President had called him from Air Force One three hours after he fired Tillerson by Tweet.
Tillerson’s voice was a tad shaky — enough, perhaps, to show he was trying to mask a mix of anger, shock and exhaustion. And as he prepared to leave the department he has led for the last 14 months, he took one parting shot at Russia. Using the kind of language seldom if ever heard from the Trump White House, Tillerson said “much work remains to respond to the troubling behavior and actions on the part of the Russian government.”
That task will belong to Pompeo, who must first clear the hurdle of Senate confirmation. He is expected to face tough questioning but as a sitting CIA Director there is little doubt he will win the approval of a majority of Senators.
His proposed replacement at the CIA, Deputy Director Gina Haspel, most likely will have a much higher mountain to climb. During her 30-year-careers at the agency, she reportedly ran a CIA secret prison in Thailand where terror suspects were subjected to waterboarding and other controversial interrogation techniques.
If confirmed, not only will she be the first woman to lead the CIA, but she will be the first career member of the intelligence community to hold the job in a long time.
Human rights group are opposing the nomination, as is Senator Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He called Haspel “unsuitable.”
But she has the respect of Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr who said “she has the right skill set, experience and judgment to lead one of our nation’s most critical agencies.” Another endorsement came from former CIA Director John Brennan who said Haspel has a lot of integrity and has tried to carry out her duties to the best of her ability including “some very difficult things in very challenging times.”
All these personnel changes have done nothing to dispel the notion of a presidency in chaos. In the last few weeks, Trump has lost several other close aides — including chief economic advisor Gary Cohn and communications director Hope Hicks. Unlike Tillerson, they quit.
Already, there is speculation about who might be the next to go. Among the names being mentioned are White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Chief of Staff John Kelly.
In all honesty, only Trump knows their fate and at the moment he is not tipping his hand.
It’s kind of like an episode of “The Apprentice” only the stakes are much, much higher.
A Tweet from an old friend summed the situation up pretty well. He captured the essence of the Trump presidency in a refrain from one of my favorite songs. Originally released in 1974, the words are even more meaningful today:
“Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends!”