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President Donald Trump has scrapped Rex Tillerson and tapped longtime ally and CIA Director Mike Pompeo as the next secretary of state, citing good relations — even over policy alignment — as reason enough to bring him into the White House.
“We have a very good relationship for whatever reason, chemistry, whatever it is — why do people get along?” Trump said of Pompeo to reporters outside of the South Portico on Tuesday. “With Mike, we've had a very good chemistry right from the beginning.”
Rumors of Trump shuffling out Tillerson for Pompeo have circulated for months, Axios reported in October that the president admired Pompeo's candor, ability to convey tough news, credibility with other key officials, and general popularity over Tillerson. However, the 53-year-old head of the CIA faced heavy criticism for his distortion of a report of Russia's preference for the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.
Experts agree that Pompeo's unflinching loyalty to Trump, especially in the face of Tillerson's divisive opinions on foreign affairs, was his golden ticket to Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Clearly, Pompeo will be more in sync with the president in ideological terms,” Nile Gardiner, a Heritage Foundation fellow, told Independent Journal Review.
Gardiner, who specializes in international security studies, suspected that Pompeo's hardened stance on the Iran nuclear agreement was likely what sealed the deal for Trump. Back in 2016, Pompeo called the deal “disastrous” and said he was “look[ing] forward to rolling [it] back.” He's also likened Iran to a “thuggish police state” and compared the nation to ISIS. Tillerson was less enthused about a potential departure from the agreement.
“The fault lines between Tillerson and Pompeo are far larger over Iran than any other singular issue ... it's extremely significant in the changeover in leadership comes at a critically important stage of negotiations,” Gardiner said.
Aggressive conservatism is nothing new to Pompeo, a three-term alumni of the House of Representatives where he was an active member of the Tea Party and House Intelligence Committee.
One senior GOP aide familiar with Pompeo expressed concern at his more combative nature.
“We didn't even think he was a good candidate for CIA,” the aide told IJR. “He's more hawkish than the president and has no diplomatic experience.”
Still, other Washingon insiders claim that the staffing change was less about the who and more about the when.
“The tension in their relationship has been visible for months,” former United States Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley told IJR. “The timing is stunning, coming just weeks before the most consequential meeting of the Trump presidency.”
Crowley, who was appointed to the Department of State during the Obama administration, argued that it's not a matter of expertise — Pompeo may even be more forced on North Korea than Tillerson, he said. However, swapping out a key piece of the puzzle just months before a historic sit-down with North Korea seems to cause more problems than it solves, Crowley added.
“Someone has to work with Pyongyang to determine when it will take place, where it will take place, the size and shape of the table, and so forth ... It just adds to the uncertainty of how the administration will pull all of this together,” he said.
According to multiple reports, this large-scale staffing announcement was news to even Tillerson, who allegedly found out with the rest of the world when the president broke the news on Twitter early Tuesday morning.
“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!” Trump wrote.
The reasoning behind the staffing shakeup breaks with Trump's comments made less than a week ago with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven in which he indicated openness for disagreements in the West Wing.
“I like having two people with different points of view, and I certainly have that,” Trump said. “I like watching it, I like seeing it, and I think it's the best way to go. I like different points of view.”
Yet the president told reporters Tuesday that the best place for Tillerson is out of the Oval.
“I wish Rex a lot of good things [...] I think Rex will be much happier now.”