President Trump has fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO who has been one of the administration’s most prominent figures. Discord between Trump and Tillerson was widely known, stemming from an alleged meeting in October when the Secretary of State referred to his boss as a “moron.” Trump appears to have finally had enough of the strained relationship and is seeking to replace Tillerson with his current CIA Director, Mike Pompeo. Although it is certainly the President’s prerogative to adjust his cabinet secretaries as he sees fit, canning Tillerson comes at a bad time.
First, Trump needs to be presidential going into the midterms. Already, the commander-in-chief is routinely mocked for burning through staff and advisers at a reality-show pace. Indeed, comedy shows have had a field day comparing the White House to Trump’s old reality TV show, The Apprentice. “Who will be the next to go?” was the question du jour after the resignation of Communications Director Hope Hicks only a few weeks ago. Now we know the answer. Since Trump cannot keep a cohesive staff, he looks less and less able as our nation’s chief executive.
Congressional Republicans who try to portray themselves as Trump loyalists in the run-up to November will be pilloried by Democrats for allying themselves with the most fumbling and bumbling administration in the modern era. And, as 2020 talks among Democrats increases, you can bet that a cornerstone of any anti-Trump attack will be his inability to govern his White House Staff or maintain a cabinet. With former Democratic vice president Joe Biden, among other prominent politicians and celebrities like Democrat Congressman Tim Ryan and movie star Dwayne Johnson, appearing to be setting up a 2020 candidacy, it is almost guaranteed that Barack Obama’s steady White House staffing will be used to highlight Trump’s frantic HR woes. They will say things like, can you expect a man who cannot govern his own White House to be able to govern the nation. Tillerson learned of his firing from twitter rather than from an in person meeting with the President or a staffer.
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
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Trump’s firing of Tillerson sends waves of uncertainty at a time when the President should be making no sudden moves. Breaking with tradition, Trump has agreed to meet directly with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, the first time a U.S. President would have met with a leader of the combative, Communist “hermit-kingdom.” While the summit could be a spectacular foreign policy success for the controversial President, it could also backfire terribly. It’s a high-risk, high-reward situation that has everyone on edge. Normally there would be many meetings before the two leaders meet one another, this is to make sure they are aware of what they will be meeting about. In this case, the country and the President’s administration have no idea what the meeting will be about and seem to be walking in blind.
Was Tillerson’s firing influenced by his reluctance to support a face-to-face meeting between the bombastic Trump and the unpredictable Kim? Obviously, Trump does not want to keep around a Secretary of State who opposes the President’s attempts to engage in direct diplomacy…but does the President have the wherewithal to handle a high-stakes meeting with a nuclear-armed foe? Given Trump’s track record of going off message and waxing offensive, it seems likely that Trump is out of his element in a sensitive summit. Nevertheless, he is the President and the country waits seemingly holding its breadth to see how this turns out. Given North Korea’s own track record, it is unlikely that Pyongyang is seeking genuine peace. More likely, they are trying to buy time to further develop their arsenal and feel out America’s newest commander-in-chief. Analysts suggest that the North Korean leader has recognized that the President is in need of some kind of win due to his mounting scandals and will do almost anything to get that win.
Alarmingly, there is a historic parallel for a relatively new U.S. President to fare poorly in a summit meeting with a short, squat Communist: In 1961, rookie president John F. Kennedy was unprepared for the shrewd determination of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Instead of walking away from Vienna with peace secured, Kennedy appeared to have riled the Russians into a renewed arms race. Will Trump’s aggression do the same thing in 2018? Perhaps that is Trump’s plan, since it would highlight his asserted need for increased military spending. Walking away from the summit with Kim Jong-un threatening war would terrify the American public, but likely get Trump’s demands for a boosted U.S. military through Congress.
Of course, a failed summit meeting, made likelier by Trump lacking a more-experienced Tillerson by his side, would be bad for America. Not only would it genuinely increase the risk of a nuclear strike by North Korea, but it would worsen our federal budget by increasing defense spending after Trump cut taxes mostly for the wealthy. The national deficit would soar, the increased defense spending could cause inflation, and Russia and China would likely match our own defense hikes with their own. It’s suggested that in order to be fully prepared for the summit, President Trump should’ve kept Rex until after the summit…and the midterms.
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