There are a few sureties about personnel decisions in the Trump administration that are basically axiomatic at this point.
- Everyone is basically a cheap grifter and a penny-ante crook (hi Ben Carson! Nice to see you Ryan “Don’t Call It A Jet, Elitists!” Zinke.”)
- The one comforting things about the fact that everyone who works for Trump eventually gets ritually humiliated by a petty bully is that everyone who works for Trump deserves to get ritually humiliated by a petty bully.
- While it’s nice to see people leave, what comes next is always worse.
That brings us to yesterday’s “firing by tweet” of Rex Tillerson, who 15 months ago was one of the most powerful and private men in the world. This was a humiliating end to a man who could pick up the phone and get kings and billionaires on the line, and who could remake the world based on his pipeline politics.
He never really got to do that as Secretary of State, because he worked for a childish idiot equal parts venal and ignorant, but he was able to “accomplish” some things. He completely gutted the State Department, being unable or unwilling to fill key roles, and lost hundreds and hundreds of professionals staffers and area experts. He diminished the role of American diplomacy to, at best, an afterthought.
And sure, part of that was that he worked for a President who didn’t want any independent power bases, and who assumes he could (and should) rule on a whim. Trump was always all-in on “deconstructing the administrative state”, not out of any deep ideology, but out of the overwhelmingly narcissistic idea that he alone can get the job done.
(The brings up another of this blog’s axioms: all of Trump’s personal pathologies line up directly with GOP ideology. He’s the quintessential Republican, even if he doesn’t know it.)
But to blame this all on Trump is to completely miss the point of Tillerson. Rex ran Exxon like a sort of god-king. He wasn’t particularly vain, at least not in the Trumpian sense, but he believed that corporations shouldn’t be shackled by the government. He thought that they could (and should) run their own parallel diplomacy, and was frustrated by being restrained by those pencildicks at Foggy Bottom, who cared about “human rights” or “the national interest.” (see Steve Coll’s Private Empire for more on this.)
In that sense, he accomplished what he wanted. He destroyed the State Department, and left it unable to serve its primary function. And in the few instances where he acted like a reasonable grownup, such as in North Korea, Iran, and lately with Russia, he was undermined because he never really understood how to build a power center, and couldn’t stand up to our wet idiot of a President.
So overall? Worst Secretary of State in my lifetime at least. Kissinger was more venal, of course, and deserves to be remembered as a murderous criminal. Powell was a good man who enabled terrible things. But everything Rex did was bad, and what he didn’t do is catastrophic.
And, of course, what comes next is worse.
There are many reasons why Mike Pompeo is a terrible choice for Secretary of State. For one thing, he is terminally undistinguished. Two years ago he was a garden-standard Tea Party Congressman, no one’s idea of a diplomat or even a particularly important public servant. He was most known for being, even relative to other Tea Partiers, something of a theocratic loon.
As this Atlantic piece by Peter Beinart from November points out, Pompeo has always been a staunch Christianist and an anti-Islamic bigot. He never missed a chance to make Muslims feel like they were unwelcome guests in a Christian state, and never passed up an opportunity to inflame sectarian hatred. He consorts with the Gaffneys and the Gellars of the world, which readers steeped in the subtle arts of diplomatic history may realize is a long fucking way away from good.
The Soufan Group sums up why this is so terrible.
The nomination of CIA Director Pompeo as the next Secretary of State is an attempt to improve the connection between President Trump and the State Department. Pompeo is a vocal critic of the JCPOA and his confirmation likely will spell the end of the agreement, which was signed in 2015 after intensive negotiations by the U.S., the U.K., Russia, China, France, Germany, the E.U., and Iran. President Trump has consistently called for the U.S. to leave the agreement, while Secretary Tillerson pushed to keep the U.S. in the agreement.
By nullifying the JCPOA, the U.S. is also likely to torpedo any upcoming talks with North Korea over its own nuclear program. It is unlikely Pyongyang would sign a nuclear agreement if the U.S. walks away from a signed agreement with Iran. As Secretary of State, Pompeo would be more aligned with President Trump’s hardline on North Korea. It remains to be seen if Pompeo’s support for the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment concerning Russia’s campaigns against the 2016 U.S. election will shift with his new position. The immediate impact of replacing Tillerson with Pompeo will be that the U.S. will present a more unified front on issues of global importance. However, the longer-term consequences of a more nationalistic U.S. foreign policy, probable under Pompeo, remain to be seen.
It should be insane that, a handful of days after deciding on a whim to enter one-on-one talks with North Korea, Trump not only fires his chief diplomat, but replaces him with someone whose whole goal is to say that the US can’t be trusted when it comes to nuclear negotiations. And while that is insane, that’s more symptomatic of the underlying issue.
The issue is that Trump is feeling both cornered by Mueller, who is clearly closing in, and increasingly unleashed. He’s fully understanding that the GOP under Ryan and McConnell will not stand up to him, and that he can do whatever he wants. He’s chafed under even the most minor constraints of people who disagree with him, and now he can freewheel.
That means getting rid of anyone who is even minorly independent. It means doing things his way, which isn’t independently, per se, but with no one to tell him he is wrong. Remember, this deeply ignorant man hates and fears, above all else, people pointing that out to him, even just by dint of being around and clearly being smarter. So he only wants to be surrounded by people who whimperingly give in to his every wish.
News reports say he is happy, and he is running things like his business. The usual descriptions are “with chaos” or “improvisationally”, but those are just the terms he uses to hide the fact that he never knows what the hell he’s doing. But as long as no one tells him that, he’s happy.
The North Korean negotiations are part of that. He’s always wanted to negotiate nuclear issues, because he thinks he knows more than anyone, and feels that it would make him look great. (Seriously, he’s been asking to be involved in nuclear talks going back to the 80s, claiming that he would only need a few hours to learn everything there was about the issue. He’s always been terrible.) And hey, now he can do it!
So yeah, this is really no way to run a government, and it’s not just because his businesses have been a catastrophe. He’s surrounded by enablers who cater to his worst impulses, for reasons both ideological (like Pompeo, who can’t wait to make the world worse) and because they are toadyish sycophants who just love being near power.
But this is terrible. Not only is it deeply dangerous in a very dangerous world, but it is the next phase in the unmooring of our democracy. The tyrant impulse is being fully unleashed, and it is being enabled and congratulated. The people who can stop it are not. It’s still clear that this November is of unspeakable importance, but I wonder if even a wave will be enough.
After all, Trump’s stupidity, impatience, petulance, and massive intellectual limitations haven’t been enough to stop this. He’s still somehow getting what he wants and breaking the world. This isn’t over, not by a long shot. But as bad as things have been, they are getting worse.