The sudden announcement from President Donald Trump this morning that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would be replaced by CIA Director Mike Pompeo was a surprise to nearly everyone — including Tillerson, who reportedly found out from reading the president’s tweet.
But on Capitol Hill, the prevailing mood was a lack of surprise — followed by a sense of fatigue.
“I’ve tried to shore up that relationship,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) told reporters, speaking of the deteriorating partnership between the president and his secretary of state.
Corker, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a self-described Tillerson advocate, said he believed Trump and his now-former secretary of state — long rumored to be on the outs — had reached a “reprieve of some kind” in early December.
Corker had previously named Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly as Cabinet members who assuaged his concerns about Trump’s chaotic foreign policy actions. Now, one of those three is out and Kelly is rumored to be on the chopping block as well (as well as National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster).
Ultimately, Corker and others in the Senate chalked up Tillerson’s sudden dismissal to vast differences in style between the two men.
“Every president wants to be seen as their own foreign policy person,” Corker said. “The president is not a process guy, right? He meets, he does things, he makes decisions very quickly. Tillerson, on the other hand, tries to work things through.”
It appears that quick decision-making was at work on Tuesday as well. Soon after Trump’s decision was made public, the State Department’s undersecretary for diplomacy, Steve Goldstein, released a statement saying Tillerson “did not speak to the president and is unaware of the reason” he was being let go.
Tillerson later confirmed he spoke to Trump hours after the tweet was first sent.
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. Congratulations to all!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2018
Trump’s capacity to shock Congress seems to be diminishing after weeks of nonstop administration scandals and departures. Tillerson’s sudden ouster did not seem to faze some senators, Republicans and Democrats alike.
Of the six senators Vox talked to on Tuesday, only one — Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) — said he was “shocked” by the news.
Many more seemed resigned to the fact that it was just another day in Trump’s Washington.
“Would anything surprise you from this president?” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) asked incredulously. “The writing was on the wall months ago. His days were numbered. I think they were looking for some sort of a graceful exit, but he fell out of favor with the president months ago, and he’s been on life support politically ever since.”
And Corker, the man who attempted to broker peace between the two, also added he wasn’t surprised about the break.
“Not really,” he said. “Tillerson’s goal had been to stay for a year. I think he did that. … That’s what he did.”
The bigger questions swirling seem to be about Trump’s proposed replacements.
The issue of torture looms as the Senate weighs Trump’s replacements
In the same tweet letting Tillerson go, Trump also announced he would replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. The president also named CIA veteran Gina Haspel to be the intelligence agency’s next director, the first woman to serve if confirmed.
Both Pompeo and Haspel must first go in front of the Senate for confirmation hearings before they take on their new jobs. So far, Haspel is eliciting the most controversy; there have already been many questions about Haspel’s experience directing a CIA “black site” prison in Thailand where detainees were subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding.
Trump himself has touted waterboarding during past rallies, saying he wanted to bring torture back as a means of interrogation.
“Absolutely I feel it works,” he told a crowd, despite a 2014 US Senate Select Committee report on the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program concluding torture often does not yield accurate information.
Senators from both parties sounded the alarm about Haspel’s past after Trump’s announcement.
“The torture of detainees in U.S. custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said in a statement. “Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program during the confirmation process. I know the Senate will do its job in examining Ms. Haspel’s record as well as her beliefs about torture and her approach to current law.”
McCain, a victim of torture when he was imprisoned by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, has been especially outspoken about the use of enhanced interrogation and other torture techniques.
“In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, our government squandered precious moral authority in a futile effort to produce intelligence by means of torture,” he said on Tuesday. “We are still dealing with the consequences of that desperately misguided decision.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, blocked Haspel from being promoted to acting head of the CIA’s clandestine service in 2013 for her work on the black site prison. Feinstein was also instrumental in the 2014 Senate report investigating CIA torture practices.
But Feinstein was demure in person on Tuesday, saying she had not yet decided how to vote in Haspel’s confirmation hearing.
“I have spent some time with her, we had dinner together, we had talked,” Feinstein said. “Everything I know is that she has been a good deputy director of the CIA. I think hopefully the entire organization learns from the so-called enhanced interrogation program. I think it’s something that can’t be forgotten, I certainly can never forget it. I won’t let any director forget it.”
Others in Feinstein’s party took a stronger stance.
“Ms. Haspel’s background makes her unsuitable to serve as CIA director,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said in a statement. “Her nomination must include total transparency about this background, which I called for more than a year ago when she was appointed deputy director. If Ms. Haspel seeks to serve at the highest levels of U.S. intelligence, the government can no longer cover up disturbing facts from her past.”
Though Haspel’s and Pompeo’s records are sure to come up, there’s some serious urgency in getting them confirmed, which senators in both parties recognized. Tillerson’s departure comes at a crucial time for US foreign policy, just a week after Trump announced he would meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un for denuclearization talks in the coming months. Reporters reminded Corker that the US is still without an ambassador to South Korea.
“I mean, would we be better off with all of those positions filled and having a secretary, sure,” Corker said, adding he has faith in career diplomats and Washington, DC, think tanks to fill in the gaps left by Tillerson. “I still think we’ll be able to deal with it. That’s not to diminish the importance of having a secretary of state.”
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