Trump Administration: Tillerson Out, Hawks In?

Trump's national security team looks like it's about to get a lot more warlike

Rex Tillerson, pictured October 30th, may soon be ousted from his job as secretary of state. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

One of the few grown-ups in the Trump administration is on his way out, to be replaced by a super-hawk who's seemingly been itching for war with Iran, if current, widespread reports are to be believed. The grown-up would be Rex Tillerson, the millionaire businessman and former ExxonMobil CEO who for the past ten months has served as Donald Trump's secretary of state. And the hawk would be Mike Pompeo, a former Kansas congressman who rode Tea Party support to an election win in 2010 and who's been serving as CIA director and Trump consigliere since January.

And it gets worse. Taking over at the CIA for Pompeo, if recent reports are correct, will be another ultra-hawk, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton. All in all, the elevation of Pompeo and Cotton would signal a drastic escalation in the Trump administration's foreign policy bombast and bellicosity, and it's more than likely that the first target of the new duo will be Iran.

It isn't like Tillerson – who calls the rumors of his ouster "laughable" – would be missed at Foggy Bottom, as the State Department is fondly referred to in Washington. Since arriving in January, he's made a royal mess of things, overseeing a mass exodus of diplomats, including veteran ambassadors, while seeking sweeping cuts in the department's budget. Inexplicably, he's filled only a tiny portion of the organization's top positions, leaving assistant secretary posts and ambassadorships empty around the world. Diplomats who've managed to hang on have been sounding the alarm, to no avail. Recently, Barbara Stephenson, the president of the American Foreign Service Association, dispatched a stunning letter to her members, including numerous State Department veterans, warning that "our leadership ranks are being depleted at a dizzying speed" and that the department has lost fully 60 percent of its career ambassadors, the highest rank in the foreign service, since Tillerson took over.

Still, navigating a perilous course around the world while under fire from nonstop presidential tweets and erratic, freelance diplomacy from the likes of Jared Kushner, Tillerson has somehow managed to counteract or moderate at least some of the White House's bungling. When Trump and Kushner egged Saudi Arabia on in a needless showdown with neighboring Qatar at the heart of the world's oil patch, Tillerson stepped in to try to quiet things. When Trump insisted (in a tweet, naturally) that diplomacy with North Korea was a lost cause and that Tillerson should give up, Tillerson doggedly persevered. Tillerson urged Trump not to abandon the Paris agreement on climate change, though Trump did it anyway. And he counseled the president to stick with the six-power accord with Iran over Tehran's now neutralized nuclear program.

So, as bad as Tillerson's wrecking-ball approach to the State Department has been, he at least tried to restrain Trump's most ill-informed proclivities. Now, if Pompeo and Cotton set up shop at State and the CIA, respectively, all bets are off. "At least Mr. Tillerson tried to check Mr. Trump's worst excesses," wrote Antony Blinken, a former top foreign policy aide to Vice President Biden and President Obama, in The New York Times. "Now we may seem them fully unleashed."

Across the world's hotspots – from Syria and Ukraine, where the United States and Russia are facing off in shooting wars, to North Korea, where a nuclear- and missile-armed dictator is rattling sabers – the combination of Trump, Pompeo and Cotton could bumble into unthinkable disasters. In the weeks ahead, it's likely that the trio will turn to Iran as the testing ground for a new, far more aggressive approach.

In October, Trump set off alarm bells around the world when he refused to certify the Iran deal, tossing the whole thing back to Congress, demanding new, illegal sanctions on Iran, and warning that when the issue rolls around again in January he just might cancel the whole accord outright. Should he do so, which is at least a strong possibility, he'll have the perfect wingmen for what would then be an escalating crisis with Tehran as soon as next month.

Pompeo, an oilman with ties to the far-right Koch brothers, is a relative newcomer to the world of foreign policy, having signed up for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence just four years ago, before taking over the CIA. He's been a strong supporter of domestic surveillance, and he's called for the death penalty for Edward Snowden. "Mr. Pompeo is literally an extremist," Steven Aftergood, director at the Federation of American Scientists, told Bloomberg. "He has staked out extreme positions on intelligence surveillance, interrogation and other areas that deviate from the mainstream consensus."

But for years Pompeo has been a fierce and uncompromising critic of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, the six-nation compact with Iran that placed severe, long-lasting restrictions on Tehran's nuclear program. Last year, Pompeo circulated a letter written by 190 retired generals, admirals and other military officers who called the accord "dangerous" and likely to lead to war – although the vast majority of America's national security establishment, including retired officers and diplomats, as well as Tillerson, back the JCPOA. While in Congress, in a string of more than two dozen press releases, three op-eds and numerous Fox News appearances, Pompeo warned darkly about supposed, secret codicils in the accord that allegedly undermine its integrity – a spurious charge in which Sen. Cotton joined his then-Kansas House colleague. And just before his nomination to lead the CIA was announced, Pompeo tweeted, "I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world's largest sponsor of terrorism."

In a sign of what sort of tactics Pompeo might be thinking about to gin up conflict with Iran, just last month he ordered the CIA to release a stash of files allegedly captured during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, files that Pompeo claimed would prove that Iran and Al Qaeda were in cahoots. Never mind that Al Qaeda and Iran are on opposite sides of the bitter Sunni-Shiite divide and that Al Qaeda is far closer to Saudi Arabia's own version of extremist Islamism. It's the same underhanded strategy that President George W. Bush and his array of neoconservatives used in 2003 to push for war against Iraq, when they claimed falsely that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were in league over 9/11.

Meanwhile, Cotton has been Pompeo's ally since the start of President Obama's effort to strike a deal with Iran years ago. Back in 2014, during a joint appearance, Pompeo and Cotton took turns lobbing grenades at the Iran deal. "I hope that Congress' role will be to put an end to these negotiations," said Cotton, with Pompeo adding, threateningly, "It [would take] under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity. This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces."

Two years ago, in an almost unprecedented congressional effort aimed at sabotaging Obama's negotiations with Iran, Cotton wrote a rare open letter to Iran warning that the deal could be instantly unraveled by the next president – that would be Donald Trump – "with the stroke of a pen." Ridiculing Cotton's letter back then, Obama said, "It's somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hard-liners in Iran. It's an unusual coalition." Now, should Cotton and Pompeo emerge as Trump's foreign policy tag team, they can accomplish exactly what they promised.

One obvious lesson for Rex Tillerson, if he does find himself bounced from this job, is that he might remember not to call his next boss a "fucking moron." That's how he referred to the notoriously ego-driven and insult-sensitive president of the United States earlier this year – and from that moment on, his fate was probably sealed. It's been generally expected around Washington for months now that Tillerson would soon find himself back in the private sector, no doubt asking himself why the hell he ever took the job in the first place. (One possible answer: to see whether he could somehow resurrect a deal between ExxonMobil and Russia reportedly worth as much as $500 billion, a deal that succumbed to U.S. sanctions imposed on Moscow by the Obama administration.)

There is a small chance that cooler heads will prevail, and that some of those who inhabit the more sensible, or at least less crazy, wing of Trump's government will rally to defend Tillerson before he's shown the door. According to one report, unverified, in the Washington Examiner last month, Tillerson, Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis agreed on an informal "suicide pact": All of them would leave if one was ousted. That seems farfetched, however. It's far more likely that Tillerson's "moron" will get his way, and that Pompeo and Cotton will soon be sitting at new desks in Washington and in Langley, Virginia.