Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may be stepping down in late January, according to several media reports which have, apparently, been confirmed by an unnamed White House official. By most accounts, Tillerson has never been popular within the department and has been at odds with the president on certain prominent issues. The White House has yet to officially confirm or deny the rumor, but speculation surrounding possible replacements for Tillerson is already churning, with current CIA Director Mike Pompeo being the assumed front-runner.
News of the possible cabinet shuffle is surely causing some consternation within the federal government and more than a little head-scratching among political observers. Certainly, it is very normal for presidents to replace cabinet members or for department heads to step down. From the moment that leadership of the State Department became a major talking point, however, the nation’s top diplomat became something of a ‘lame duck,’ at least until the speculation is officially addressed.
Rumor Or Impending Reshuffle?
At this time of rapidly developing foreign policy complications, such a situation is not ideal, leading one to question the wisdom or motives behind the revelation. Is the rumor of Tillerson’s impending departure an attempt to undermine the State Department and, If so, by whom? Is it an indication of ongoing efforts to oust Tillerson? Another possibility, of course, is that the State Department chief is not going anywhere. Just a few short months ago, all indications seemed to point to Jeff Sessions’ imminent exit from the Justice Department and, yet, Sessions remains Attorney General.
Regarding predictions about who might replace the Secretary of State, Pompeo is considered the most likely candidate. Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ar.), reports suggest, could replace Pompeo as head of the CIA. United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley has also been thrown into the mix as a wild-card candidate for Tillerson’s job.
Trouble at State
Rex Tillerson has butted-heads with many people, particularly within his own department, over his attitudes toward staffing. In addition to personnel reshuffles, a number of high-level diplomats have left the department over the past few months. Writing in the Washington Post Wednesday, one of Tillerson’s predecessors, Madeleine Albright, likened the perceived crisis within the department to “a national security emergency.”
“Change within the Foreign Service and the State Department’s civil service is not unusual. In fact, the system is designed to bring in fresh blood on a regular basis. There is, however, a big difference between a transfusion and an open wound. There is nothing normal about the current exodus.”
State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters Wednesday that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly had called to say that the rumors of Tillerson’s departure were not true. When asked about the story by a reporter, during a joint press conference with the Crown Prince of Bahrain, President Trump merely said “He’s here. Rex is here.” A White House spokesman later clarified that the president was referring to the fact that Tillerson had been at the White House at the time.
Foreign Policy Clashes
A recent article in Business Insider described how Tillerson and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, may have been on opposite sides of maneuvers surrounding the future of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. The Prime Minister was abruptly summoned to Saudi Arabia in early November. Once there, he was reportedly ordered, by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, to announce his resignation. The Prince, now the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, is very close to Kushner. Tillerson was apparently furious that the Saudis had not warned the United States in advance of this hugely significant step. The official State Department position is one of support for Hariri.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement Wednesday in response to the reports. Stating that the White House had “no personnel announcements at this time,” Sanders’ statement said, “Secretary Tillerson continues to lead the State Department and the entire Cabinet is focused on completing this incredibly successful first year of President Trump’s administration.”
Although Trump himself appears to have taken the wheel, regarding the situation with North Korea, Tillerson is still very much involved in middle east diplomacy and is scheduled to depart for meetings in Europe. With something of a restructuring taking place at the State Department, it seems odd that Tillerson would be planning to step aside in January. Were Trump planning to fire him, it would likely not be revealed two months in advance. Many political commentators now seem confident that Tillerson’s days at the State Department are numbered. Meanwhile, the White House has declined to definitively quash the rumor.
The rumors will likely continue until Trump is compelled to end them, one way or another. On the other hand, this is a different breed of chief executive. Will he, at some point, dismiss the story as merely a further attempt to undermine his administration or will he simply maintain the suspense until the new year? As things stand, the best answer to that question is: Watch this space.