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US Politics

Experts applaud Trump for firing of 'out-of-step' Tillerson and bringing clarity to his China and North Korea policies – and they say McMaster could be next

Tillerson was criticised early in his tenure for his comment that he was hoping for a US-China relationship with ‘no conflict’ and ‘win-win cooperation’ – running counter to the hard line Trump had taken with Beijing

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2018, 8:54pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2018, 11:35am

US President Donald Trump’s firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was lauded by former US policymakers as a move that will bring more clarity to an administration faulted for sending mixed signals on its approach to China and nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula. 

Analysts also said replacement of Trump’s top diplomat with loyalist CIA Director Mike Pompeo might presage the firing of US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster as the president continues to fill foreign policy-related posts with people he is closer to. 

Some expect John Bolton, Washington’s “hawkish” former United Nations envoy, to take McMaster’s place. 

“During Tillerson’s visit to China, he seemed to be out of step with Trump,” Stephen Orlins, president of the National Committee on US-China Relations, told the South China Morning Post in an interview. 

 “He really was looking for a very positive, constructive relationship [with China], whereas Trump was looking for cooperation on North Korea but also looking for really tough trade actions.” 

Pompeo is “apparently very, very smart”, said Orlins, who held several positions in the US state department, including assistant legal adviser for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. 

“I think he should be able to understand how China works and understand the benefits that the United States gets from constructive relations.” 

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Tillerson was criticised early in his tenure for his comment that he was hoping for a US-China relationship with “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation”, a comment that ran counter to the hard line Trump had taken with Beijing on trade issues and that the US president continues to push. 

That comment, during a March 2017 meeting in Beijing, was hailed by China’s state news agency Xinhua in its news reports and commentary. 

Comments that conflicted with the White House continued throughout Tillerson’s tenure. On Monday, he criticised Russia over the poisonings in England of a former spy and his daughter, directly blaming Moscow after White House press secretary Sarah Sanders declined to do so. 

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“North Korea sees in Trump a dominant leader whose subordinates are guided by him, not vice versa,” said Daniel Russel, senior fellow at the New York-based Asia Society Policy Institute and former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. 

“That’s a political system they can relate to and explains why they were uninterested in dealing with Tillerson instead of Trump himself. 

“The job of ‘spy chief’, CIA director,” Russel said, “is one [the North Koreans] fully understand and respect. South Korea’s spy chief was in fact one of the two envoys to Pyongyang. That may give Pompeo a certain advantage when he becomes secretary.” 

Tillerson had been noticeably absent from the US response to North Korea’s offer of direct talks with Trump, which took policymakers by surprise last week. The two envoys referenced by Russel delivered Pyongyang’s message to Pompeo and McMaster. 

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“Whatever angle negotiations with North Korea take is a matter of politics, but consistency is to our benefit,” said Hugh Dugan, who served in the state department’s bureau for economic and business affairs. “Our team will be tighter and more able to play a smarter game. 

“Pompeo is up to the job in terms of his hands-on, take-no-prisoners style, but also he’s got a great capacity for understanding nuance,” said Dugan, currently a visiting scholar at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy in New Jersey. “That will get the respect of the rank and file in the department, eventually.”  

Meanwhile, concerns that Tillerson’s ouster signals Trump’s intention to take a harder line with North Korea and other foreign policy issues tempered some of the enthusiasm for more foreign policy consistency within the Trump administration. 

Harry Kazianis, director of defence studies at the Washington-based Centre for the National Interest, said Pompeo would take a more aggressive approach on issues including Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and protection of Taiwan. 

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"The firing of Rex Tillerson could impact US-China relations a great deal considering the fact that Mike Pompeo is considered more of a hawk on China issues,” Kazianis said. 

If Trump felt Tillerson was not capable of preparing for a face-to-face meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, “that might just explain why Rex had to go and why McMaster might be next”. 

Pompeo’s appointment may disappoint those expecting the upcoming meeting to usher in a more permanent rapprochement with Pyongyang. 

“Pompeo has a far more aggressive view of North Korea, which will likely complicate Trump’s plans for a summit with Kim between now and May,” said Isaac Stone Fish, a senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Centre on US-China Relations. 

Stone Fish added that “rumours swirling that the hawkish John Bolton might replace H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser could presage another stark turn in the United States’ North Korea policy, worryingly increasing the chances of an ill-advised pre-emptive strike”.

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An ouster of McMaster would extend a shake-up of Trump’s cabinet, which has led to accusations that the White House is in disarray. Some doubt this “turbulence” will lead to more consistency.

“Tillerson’s ouster is a sign of continued turbulence in US foreign policy,” Jessica Chen Weiss, a China expert at Cornell University’s department of government, said in an interview with the Post.

“So far there’s little indication that Trump consistently listens to his advisers, while there’s every indication that his advisers follow Trump’s lead,” Weiss said.

“Pompeo fits this profile as well and has little diplomatic experience, so leaders in Asia and around the world will still have to guess from Trump’s tweets and spur-of-the-moment decisions what new tack the US plans to take.”

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Trump announced Tillerson’s ouster – the biggest in his administration so far – on Twitter, capping months of tensions between the Republican president and the 65-year-old former ExxonMobil chief executive. 

Tillerson’s top aide, Steve Goldstein, was also sacked, shortly after he contradicted the White House’s account of the firing. 

In his tweet before Goldstein’s removal, Trump announced that CIA deputy director Gina Haspel would step into Pompeo’s role at the intelligence agency. 

“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! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!” Trump declared on Twitter. 

A senior White House official said Trump had asked Tillerson to step down on Friday, but did not want to announce it while the secretary was on a trip to Africa. 

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The official said Trump worked well with Pompeo, a former congressman from Kansas seen as a loyalist within the administration, and wanted him in place before the US president’s planned talks with North Korea’s leader and trade negotiations. 

However, Goldstein, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, said Tillerson “had every intention of staying” and Trump had never actually explained to ¬his top diplomat why he was being sacked. 

“The secretary did not speak to the president this morning and is unaware of the reason, but he is grateful for the opportunity to serve, and still believes strongly that public service is a noble calling and not to be regretted,” Goldstein said. 

Goldstein also said that Tillerson only found out about his sacking in the tweet. Just hours later, Goldstein himself was fired. 

Trump later explained his decision to reporters, saying he had multiple disagreements with Tillerson, including over Iran. 

“We got along actually quite well but we disagreed on things,” Trump said. 

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“When you look at the Iran deal, I thought it was terrible, he thought it was OK. I wanted to either break it or do something. He felt a little differently. ” 

There had been long-standing rumours throughout most of Tillerson’s tenure of friction with his volatile and unpredictable boss, whom he reportedly called a “moron” in the past. 

Tillerson’s departing statement referenced tensions between the US and Russia, a sensitive issue for Trump, who has come under criticism for not doing more in response to intelligence reports that Moscow directed a covert operation via social media to influence the 2016 US presidential election. 

“Much work remains to respond to the troubling behaviour and actions on the part of the Russian government. Russia must assess carefully as to how its actions are in the best interest of the Russian people and of the world more broadly,” Tillerson said. 

“Continuing on their current trajectory is likely to lead to greater isolation on their part, a situation which is not in anyone’s interest.” 

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Tillerson said he received a call “a little after noon time” from Trump and chief of staff John Kelly “to ensure we have clarity as to the days ahead”. 

“What is most important is to ensure an orderly and smooth transition during a time that the country continues to face significant policy and national security challenges,” he said. 

Effective at the end of the day, all duties would be delegated to deputy secretary John Sullivan. Tillerson’s time at state will formally end at midnight on March 31.

Goldstein also said that Tillerson only found out about his sacking in the tweet. Just hours later, Goldstein himself was fired.