Opinion: Tillerson’s firing had less to do with Russia than with this country

Those inclined to see a Russian behind every tree are claiming to see another one regarding Rex Tillerson’s firing as secretary of state. 

Never mind that, according to the Wall Street Journal, the White House on Friday summoned Tillerson back early from a trip abroad and CIA Director Mike Pompeo was offered the job at State over the weekend -- that is, before the public disagreement Monday between Tillerson and the White House as to who was responsible for the poisoning of a former Russian spy in London. Never mind, too, that by today President Trump at least sounded like he’d come to accept Russia’s involvement in that incident. And never mind as well that, when Trump chose Tillerson, Trump’s critics deemed the longtime oil executive too cozy with Moscow to be trustworthy. Suddenly, his dismissal* is said to be just the latest proof Trump doesn’t take the Russian threat seriously, or something.

In reality, any president has the right to have cabinet members who will pursue his preferred policies. And the biggest daylight between Tillerson and Pompeo regarding policy has to do with not Russia, but Iran. Specifically, it has to do with the ill-advised deal President Obama struck with Tehran about the latter’s nuclear program. 

Consider this explanation from Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake:

“‘When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible,’ Trump told reporters Tuesday. ‘I guess (Tillerson) thought it was OK.’ That’s important because Tillerson’s State Department is charged with prodding European allies to go along with fixes to the nuclear agreement ahead of the next deadline for Trump to certify Iran’s compliance.

“Compare that with the man whom Trump has nominated to replace Tillerson, CIA Director Mike Pompeo. In his year leading the agency, Pompeo approved new authorities to target through intelligence operations leaders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. Inside the cabinet, Pompeo argued against certifying Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal while Tillerson made the case for not rocking the boat.

“To get a flavor of how Pompeo approaches the nuclear pact, look no further than his work as a member of Congress representing his home district in Wichita, Kansas. After the agreement was completed in 2015, Pompeo worked tirelessly as a member of Congress to meet with European bankers, diplomats and CEOs to make the case that investing in Iran was not as safe as they were hearing from John Kerry, who was secretary of state at the time.

“Pompeo laid out his arguments six weeks before the 2016 election in an essay for Foreign Policy with the pithy title ‘Friends Don’t Let Friends Do Business With Iran.’ At the time, one European diplomat told me his country was taking its cues from the outgoing Obama administration on investment in Iran. Now it will be taking cues from the man who tried to warn them about this.”

Remember, one of the earliest and most consequential breaks between Trump and Tillerson had to do with certification of Iran’s compliance. Others in the administration, notably U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley as well as Pompeo, argued there were grounds for doing otherwise. Trump eventually agreed to go along with Tillerson, but it seems he’s not so keen to continue doing so.

Those looking for substantive meaning from Tillerson’s firing should look eastward -- but toward Tehran, not Moscow.


*If you want to talk about the manner in which Trump fired Tillerson, sending a tweet some three hours before calling the man, that’s fair game as far as I’m concerned. It’s of a piece with the disgraceful way in which Trump let FBI Director James Comey learn he was being dismissed. It’s another example of how Trump’s style overshadows and even becomes his substance -- especially if it eventually leads him to have trouble finding quality people willing to work for his administration.

About the Author

Kyle Wingfield
Kyle Wingfield
Kyle Wingfield is the AJC's conservative columnist. He joined the AJC in 2009 after writing for the Wall Street Journal, based in Brussels, and the Associated...