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Tillerson is one of a wave of departures. Why is Trump cleaning house?
What was Rex Tillerson’s impact on the State Department and American diplomacy, and what will global ripple effects will his successor, current CIA director Mike Pompeo, face? Judy Woodruff gets reaction and analysis from Nicholas Burns, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, David Ignatius from The Washington Post and David Shedd, former acting director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
We return to the shakeup at the top of the Trump administration with the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the appointment of the current director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, to replace him as America's top diplomat.
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Nicholas Burns served 27 years in government, much of it at the Department of State. He was U.S. ambassador to NATO and to Greece. He's now at Harvard University. David Ignatius is a foreign policy columnist at The Washington Post. And David Shedd served as acting director of the Defense Intelligence Agency during a 33-year government career. He is now a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.
And, gentlemen, we welcome all three of you here today.
David Ignatius, I'm going to start with you.
Your reporting, what does it tell you about why the president made this decision?
I think president Trump has been uncomfortable with Secretary Tillerson for a year, really since soon after he took the job. Last November, Trump wanted to make a change, asked Mike Pompeo if he was ready to go to State. Pompeo said yes.
The president held off, I think was counseled by Chief of Staff Kelly and others to wait on that move. He did. But his discomfort continued. Watching the public humiliation of Rex Tillerson has been painful, I think, for the whole country. It was visible today in the pain of the resignation statement that Tillerson made.
I think Trump finally decided that the time had come to make a change as he headed into the most important diplomatic encounter of his presidency probably, the face-to-face diplomacy with Kim Jong-un and North Korea. He felt he wanted to have his own person at State, his own team behind him.
So I think the moment had come. But the discomfort has been there for many, many months.
Nicholas Burns, how would you describe the State Department under Rex Tillerson?
Demoralized, I think the greatest crisis we have had in 40 or 50 years, with 30 percent budget cuts by the Trump administration and Secretary Tillerson, the firing of some of our best senior officers early in the administration, an exodus of very good officers at all levels really, because no senior diplomats were appointed to senior positions around President Trump in the White House, the majority of our ambassadorships unfilled.
No ambassador to Seoul in the middle of this crisis, no assistant secretary of state for East Asia. So, diplomatic malpractice by Secretary Tillerson, I think that's part of his legacy, that he mismanaged the State Department, our civil and career foreign service.
And this is the great, important arm of our diplomacy, and yet these people feel that they have been excluded.
I would say I think that with — secretary designate-Pompeo has an opportunity to rebuild the department, if he can convince President Trump and the OMB director to put the money forward. He has an opportunity to win back people, but that's a tall order at this stage.
David Shedd, as somebody who has watched American foreign policy for a long time, how do you see the record of Rex Tillerson as secretary?
I think that it's spotty, because of all the reasons that have already been described in terms of his inability to really influence the president.
And I have seen in that — in Director Pompeo a disproportionate amount of influence, then, coming from the CIA at a very time where diplomacy should actually be what we would be focusing on.
What do you mean?
I mean, the director and the president, I think, have hit it off from the first day, and that relationship has actually grown deeper. He gives the president daily brief.
And I think the issues that are in alignment with the president's thinking about Iran, about North Korea, about counterterrorism are really shaped by the CIA far more than Secretary Tillerson.
David Ignatius, there were Democrats out today saying damage has been done to America's role in the world, to how America is seen by other countries under the Trump-Tillerson 14 months.
Do you agree?
I think there's no question that Trump has succeeded in his often self-proclaimed goal of disrupting, destabilizing the world and traditional relationships, assumptions about American policy. He's wanted to shake things up, and he has.
I just was in Europe last weekend listening to foreign policy discussion, and it's fair to say that our allies are concerned. They see America heading in different directions. They want the United States to be a strong leader of the system that the U.S. created after World War II, and they're concerned that Trump is walking away from that.
So, yes, I think there has been damage. I think it is important that any president, President Trump included, have a secretary of state who can speak confidently for the president, who everybody around the world knows he speaks on behalf of the president with his voice, in effect. Rex Tillerson couldn't do that. That was part of his problem.
In that sense, it's better to have a secretary who can have a consistent, straightforward expression of policy, especially as we head into these very delicate negotiations with North Korea.
And, Nick Burns, you were saying a moment ago there's an opportunity for change with Mike Pompeo coming in. How so? What kind of change should we look for?
Well, first, what David Ignatius just said, I think all of our recent secretaries of state would say that they were successful when they had the support of the president. They have to have the support of the president, or else you don't have credibility overseas.
So, if Mike Pompeo is seen as someone in whom President Trump has great confidence, and if President Trump can be consistent in exhibiting that confidence, and not undercutting Pompeo, the way he clearly undercut Secretary Tillerson, then I think Secretary Pompeo, secretary-designate Pompeo, has a chance to be an influential secretary of state.
And he will be more effective around the world if people think he's speaking for President Trump.
Two issues, Judy, to watch out for. North Korea is by far the most important issue right now. Secretary-designate Pompeo, I hope there will be speedy confirmation hearings. We need him out there, I hope, to go to Pyongyang before the summit meeting to see if the North Koreans are really serious.
I support what President Trump is trying to do through diplomacy, turning toward it, but you have to have it well-prepared. And Pompeo has been a noted critic of the Iran nuclear deal. That could spell bad news for those of us who believe that we should continue with the Iran nuclear deal. That will exacerbate our problems with Europe and the rest of the world.
So, David Shedd, where do you — how do you expect to see policy change or be reconfigured in some way, whether it's North Korea, Russia, Iran?
I think that the ability of Mike Pompeo both now in his director of CIA role and now as secretary of state, should he be confirmed, will give the president truth to power.
And I think he will do that as a result of the relationship that he has. And so on those key countries that you mentioned and the topics that are associated with that, I think secretary Pompeo will tell the president when he's off the mark.
And I think it will be taken in the kind of relationship that they have built over the last 14 months.
What does that mean, say, for North Korea?
I think he will tell the president that, ultimately, the eye on the ball is denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and that nothing short of that and with all that goes along with that in terms of having the capability to attest to the fact that Kim Jong-un is denuclearizing the peninsula will be something that he can drive President Trump to accept as an outcome, and nothing short.
David Ignatius, what would you add to that with regard to North Korea?
And what about U.S. relations with Russia, where the president seems to resist wanting to give a full-throated criticism of Russia's role and more? People are calling for him to condemn Russia's activities, not just in the election, but Syria and on and on down the list.
If Mike Pompeo is a trusted representative, a trusted emissary for President Trump, as was suggested a moment ago, the idea of going to Pyongyang to begin to set the table for the conversations is crucial.
Pompeo is thoroughly read into the intelligence about the Korea situation, obviously.
I just note, with Tillerson on the way out, the intellectual architect of this idea of engagement with North Korea, establishing the conditions for negotiations, was Rex Tillerson's work. He took it very seriously. The president is now benefiting from the work that was done.
Russia is the biggest unasked question for the administration. They haven't really gotten to the point of thinking clearly about strategy. Again, that's something that Pompeo ought to be able to drive, because the president will listen to him.
The president has to look Russian aggression and mischief in the eye and begin to deal with it. Otherwise, we will just — you know, as a country, we are going to have an increasing problem.
As you said, irony with regard to the approach, diplomatic approach to North Korea.
But, Nick Burns, how would you measure a change in the U.S. approach to Russia at this point?
Well, there's an immediate question, Judy, probably, in the next 24 hours.
The British prime minister will very likely tell the House of Commons tomorrow that it was Russia that engineered this nerve agent attack in Salisbury, England. The United States has to stand squarely behind Britain. Britain may go to the NATO alliance, not to go to war with Russia, but to exact further sanctions against Russia.
And the Trump administration, including the president this morning, very Delphic about what they were going to do in supporting Britain. I think there is only one answer. We have to be behind Britain and lead the NATO alliance to deter Putin from any further such attacks.
There is also, of course, the invasion of our election in 2016, the conspiracy to undermine our election. And one would hope that Mike Pompeo could convince President Trump, finally, that we have to be critical of President Putin and raise our defenses for the 2018 and 2020 elections.
David Shedd, do you have a clear expectation on what we will see on Russia, with regard to Russia?
I think that Mike Pompeo, coming with the knowledge that he has working at the CIA about the active measures that the Russians have been involved in for decades, and most recently using the means of technology, that, in fact, he will, as Nick suggests, be able to reach the president with the high impact of what those active measures are by way of intermission into our political system and undercutting democracy full-scale.
Does that mean taking a tougher line?
It absolutely means taking a tougher line. It's recognizing that, perhaps in Italy, in their elections, for example, calling that out, calling it out in terms of the constant Russian efforts to divide and conquer NATO by way of their activities, the support for the Baltic countries.
And you can go on and on.
And just finally and quickly, David Ignatius, a word about the incoming CIA director, or the designate, Gina Haspel. What do we know about her? What should we expect?
Gina Haspel is a career CIA operations officer. She's been in some important and sensitive positions.
One that's going to draw a lot of controversy is her role of running a black site for detention interrogation in Thailand. It's really important and worth noting that she will be, if confirmed, the first woman director of the CIA. That's a big position. It's a significant glass ceiling that's been broken.
She will have, I think, strong support of the work force, and probably support from people in the Obama administration who know her and worked with her.
And, Nick Burns, 20 seconds.
A very significant appointment.
What the president needs is a tight national security team. He has a star in Jim Mattis. If Mattis, Pompeo, Haspel can work together, then the president ought to listen to them, because the president has not been an effective president so far in his presidency with the rest of the world.
Well, this was a day when eyes were riveted on this president and the changes he is capable of making.
Nick Burns, David Ignatius, David Shedd, gentlemen, thank you all.
Thank you, Judy.
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