Rex Tillerson sacking: Rexit and beyond

More proof that propriety, protocol, punditry no longer hold sway in the U.S. administration

March 16, 2018 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

Even by his standards for unexpected diktats, U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to fire his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, came out of the blue. Mr. Tillerson, who was the CEO of ExxonMobil Corporation before taking up the role, did not agree with Mr. Trump on fundamental policy matters, the President said. This is widely seen as an allusion to Mr. Tillerson’s preference, contra-Trump, for diplomacy as a means of defusing the North Korean crisis. Also implied was a widening chasm between the two men on the merits of the Iran nuclear deal. With Mr. Tillerson’s departure, the number of senior officials exiting the Trump administration after a little more than a year has reached at least 24. Less than a week before the long-rumoured “Rexit”, White House Chief Economic Adviser Gary Cohn, formerly a Wall Street banker, quit his post over his opposition to Mr. Trump’s proposal to levy hefty steel and aluminium tariffs. And, less than a week before Mr. Cohn, White House Communications Director Hope Hicks resigned after admitting to a Congressional panel investigating Russian influence on the 2016 election that she had occasionally told “white lies” on Mr. Trump’s behalf. Rumours now swirl that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster may also soon be ousted. The question at this point is: does the existing coterie of senior White House officials enjoy the confidence of their President to a sufficient magnitude as to ensure that policies can be executed in a meaningful way?

In one sense, there does not appear to be cause for alarm over the incessant departures from the White House. It is quite possible that Mr. Trump has used his first year in office to consolidate his vision and attract the right talent to realise his governance paradigm, essentially rooted in a nationalistic, or “America First”, world view. Take the case of Mr. Pompeo: he is far more aligned with Mr. Trump’s hawkish approach towards the Kim Jong-un regime than Mr. Tillerson was. There is a case to be made that Mr. Trump’s hardline stance is what is ultimately bringing the North Koreans to the negotiating table. Mr. Tillerson, insistent on talks, was likely to have been an impediment to this strategy. The deeper message is that the liberal order of the Obama years is gone. Propriety, protocol and punditry no longer hold sway — Mr. Trump had no quarrel with Mr. Tillerson over the Secretary leaving numerous senior State Department posts vacant, but only cared about the top diplomat’s concurrence with his strategy. The President will likely apply this principle — and find himself the right people — in other policy areas as well, such as trade and immigration. Nations that engage with America may glean valuable lessons from this churn.

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