Firing Rex Tillerson is a bad look even by Trump’s standards

Relations between the president and his secretary of state were already strained, but timing so close to comments on Russian spy poisoning are unfortunate.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The Trump White House is no stranger to bad optics. But Monday's abrupt firing of secretary of state Rex Tillerson, coming just hours after the secretary of state had said that the poisoning of a former spy on British soil had “clearly” been a Russian act, was ridiculous even by Trump's low standards.

Wiltshire police raised the alarm last week when Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer, and his daughter were discovered in critical condition following apparent exposure to “an unknown substance” that was later revealed to be a deadly nerve agent of a type developed in the 1970s by the Soviet Union. Theresa May told the House of Commons that it was “highly likely” Russia was behind the attack.

After a phone conversation with foreign secretary Boris Johnson, Tillerson told reporters on Monday that he agreed with the British government's assessment. He said that he had become “extremely concerned” about Russia's behaviour and said that despite diplomatic efforts, the Kremlin's behaviour had become only “more aggressive,” NBC news reported.

With Trump it is always more accurate to assume cock-up over conspiracy (although he's making it increasingly difficult to do so) and there is no indication yet that Tillerson's words on the assassination – that it was an “egregious act” that “clearly” came from Russia – were the reason for his firing. It's possible the decision was made before Tillerson went beyond what was then the White House line.

But the timing is extremely unfortunate, and appears abrupt and unexpected. Tillerson is on a diplomatic trip to Africa and his firing appears to have come out of a clear blue sky. It wasn't even officially announced; it was first reported by the Washington Post and then only later confirmed by a tweet from Trump's account – which is likely how Tillerson found out.

Addressing reporters later on Monday, Trump said - bizarrely, but probably not inaccurately - that he thought Tillerson would "be much happier now". He also confirmed that the then-secretary of state had been shut out of negotiations last week which ended in the shock agreement of the president to meet with Kim Jong-Un later this year.

Trump himself hedged his bets on Russian involvement in the UK poisoning, saying "as soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be."

Abrupt though his firing was, it had not been not entirely unexpected. Tillerson never really grew into the job of America's leading diplomat. A former Exxon Mobil CEO, he left scores of senior State Department posts – including such crucial jobs as ambassador to South Korea – vacant for the duration of his tenure, without even nominating candidates for various key deputy-secretary positions, leaving America's diplomatic service drastically understaffed.

A private figure who seemed to resent press attention and often took diplomatic trips without notifying the media, Tillerson also clashed with Trump personally on numerous occasions, once memorably referring to the president as “a fucking moron”. The sourness of their relationship was a two-way street; during tense negotiations with North Korea's Kim Jong-Un last October, Trump undermined Tillerson by tweeting that his chief diplomat was “wasting his time”.

Mike Pompeo, the director of the CIA, will replace Tillerson as America's chief diplomat. A Trump loyalist and former congressman and member of the Tea Party – the far right wing of the Republicans – Pompeo is much more in line with Trump politically than his corporate predecessor.

But there is a potential minefield ahead; Pompeo, like Tillerson before him, is more hawkish on Russia than the president, and stood by the US intelligence community's assessment that the Kremlin meddled in the 2016 election - contradicting Trump, who said he believed Russian president Vladimir Putin's denials.

As he takes up what is probably the second-highest-profile job in the US administration, Pompeo may fall in line – or else he may find, as Tillerson did, that daring to speak against this president's position on Russia leads his career to a brusque and unceremonious end.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.