'More chaos and confusion': Senators react to Tillerson's ouster

    Secretary of State Rex Tillerson steps away from the podium after speaking at the State Department in Washington, Tuesday, March 13, 2018. President Donald Trump fired Tillerson on Tuesday and said he would nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him, in a major staff reshuffle just as Trump dives into high-stakes talks with North Korea. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

    Tuesday morning saw the latest casualty in the Trump administration with the ouster of Rex Tillerson as the Secretary of State.

    President Donald Trump briefly explained his decision, saying he and Tillerson had been discussing the change "for a long time." The secretary, Trump said, "had a different mindset" and the two "disagreed" on issues.

    In his place, Trump nominated CIA Director and former Republican congressman Mike Pompeo. "We're always on the same wavelength," Trump said. "The relationship has been very good and that's what I need as secretary of state."

    Pompeo will be replaced career CIA operative Gina Haspel. If confirmed, she will be the first woman to lead the spy agency.

    Tillerson spoke to President Trump around noon to discuss continuity at the State Department where Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan will take over the duties of acting secretary.

    In an outgoing message, Tillerson did not explicitly address his disagreements with the president. He did stress that "nothing is possible without allies and partners" and noted that for the first time State and the Department of Defense were in full agreement "that U.S. leadership starts with diplomacy."

    After thanking the "selfless leaders" working within the department, Tillerson said he will return to private life "proud of the opportunity I've had to serve my country."

    With the firing of Tillerson, come renewed questions about chaos at the White House and the stability of the administration, which has seen a high rate of staff turnover in the past year.

    "Trump is running the government like the apprentice," Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-M.D., said. "It seems like the White House, executive branch has just gone haywire."

    Van Hollen expressed deep reservations about the president's decision to appoint Pompeo to be the country's chief diplomat, saying Pompeo was likely chosen "because he would be more of a yes-man to Donald Trump."

    Van Hollen added, "I had some serious issues with Tillerson, but he at least provided some restraint of this administration — which is apparently why they got rid of him."

    Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a Democrat who has been highly critical of Trump, pointed to "more chaos and confusion" and "more inconsistency in policy" coming out of the White House.

    "The churn and turnover and constant reshuffling undo credibility and trust in American foreign policy as well as the leadership of this nation," Blumenthal asserted. "And it isn't just one position or one person involved, it is the entire government that seems to be in constant churn."

    The Trump administration has seen a historically high rate of turnover during its first year, losing or firing top officials like national security adviser, Mike Flynn, chief of staff, Reince Priebus and FBI director James Comey.

    Tillerson was followed out the door on Tuesday by his top spokesman and Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy, Steve Goldstein, who was fired by the White House after issuing a statement apparently contradicting the president. Goldstein asserted that the secretary "did not speak to the President this morning and is unaware of the reason" for his removal.

    Also on Tuesday, a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) stepped down. A top personal aide to the president, John McEntee, was removed from the White House on Monday. And in the past two weeks, Trump accepted the resignations of his chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and communications director and aide Hope Hicks.

    The White House previously defended against allegations of chaos, arguing that staff turnover was "not abnormal" at this phase in the administration.

    Trump asserted in a tweet last week, "There is no Chaos, only great Energy!"

    Republicans resisted characterizing the White House as chaotic, telling reporters that Rex Tillerson's ouster had been in the works for months.

    Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker of Tennessee said he was not surprised by the announcement, noting that "things haven't been perfect" between Trump and Tillerson.

    "I think Secretary Tillerson's beginning goal was to stay a year, and he did that," Corker said. Tillerson stepped down from his position as CEO of Exxon-Mobil in December 2016 and served for 14 months.

    The announcement didn't catch Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio off guard. Portman said he was cued into rumors that Tillerson "was interested in moving on."

    Other Republicans acknowledged the high rate of turnover in top administration positions but argued that it's Trump's prerogative who he keeps on his team.

    "He's a hard dog to keep on the porch. He has his own way of doing things. Every president has his own management style, this president has his," Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana said.

    Tillerson and Trump have publicly clashed in the past. Most recently, Tillerson reportedly warned Trump against imposing tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum, warning the president that such trade barriers could hurt U.S. national security relationships with allies. In remarks on Tuesday, Trump cited his long-term disagreement with Tillerson on the Iran nuclear agreement, which the president has said he wants to tear up.

    The most public rift between the two came in October, when reports surfaced that Tillerson referred to Trump as a "moron." Tillerson never confirmed the accuracy of the reports, but it fueled speculation that either Tillerson was thinking of leaving or Trump was getting ready to fire him.

    During his farewell speech, Tillerson noted that he is stepping aside "during a time that the country continues to face significant foreign policy and national security challenges."

    Just last week, President Trump agreed to meet with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un to begin talks on denuclearization, a decision Trump made unilaterally. Those discussions are tentatively being planned for May, leaving a very short period of time for the nation's diplomats and the president's team to prepare.

    "It is exceptionally important who the secretary of state is during this time period," said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. "That transition has to happen fast enough that we can actually keep the process going."

    Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., described the opening with North Korea as "exactly the moment you need your diplomats fully engaged." He worries that both the timing and public manner in which Tillerson was dismissed will resonate on the world stage and could undermine confidence among U.S. allies.

    Trump's decision to shuffle CIA director Pompeo to the State Department and appoint Gina Haspel to be the first female spy chief has triggered some anxiety on Capitol Hill. Senators said they are expecting potentially two tough confirmation fights.

    "With everything else we have to do around here, having the prospect of two additional confirmation fights, perhaps, is going to be a challenge," Republican Whip John Cornyn told reporters.

    The ranking Democrat in charge of appropriations to the State Department, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said that he has "not been happy with [Pompeo's] job as CIA director," but he refrained from saying whether or not he would oppose the nomination.

    Other Democrats, like Van Hollen, expressed concerns that Pompeo would not serve as an adequate check on the president when it comes to executing foreign policy.

    Pompeo was confirmed as CIA director with bipartisan support in January 2017 with 66 senators voting for him and 32 opposing his nomination. Many Republicans have already expressed their support and for his swift nomination.

    Gina Haspel will face a more difficult confirmation process. Already, a number of senators already issuing statements against her nomination because of her role in the CIA's so-called torture program.

    Though Haspel would be the first female spy chief in CIA history, there are serious concerns being raised about her role in the Bush-era extraordinary rendition and detention program, or the torture program.

    In the early 2000s, Haspel reportedly oversaw a CIA "black site" in Thailand where at least two terror suspects were subjected to waterboarding, sleep deprivation and physical assault. Haspel has denied the accuracy of reports that she oversaw the torture of terrorist detainees.

    In a statement on Tuesday, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said, "Ms. Haspel's background makes her unsuitable to serve as CIA director." He called for "complete transparency" on her career at the CIA, particularly her alleged involvement with CIA black sites.

    Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, himself the victim of torture during the Vietnam war, issued a statement calling on Haspel to explain "the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA's interrogation program during her confirmation process."

    McCain, who drafted legislation prohibiting the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, insisted that "any nominee for Director of the CIA must pledge without reservation to uphold this prohibition." He further referred to the torture of terrorist detainees as "one of the darkest chapters in American history."

    President Trump has sometimes suggested that torturing prisoners "works." At the beginning of the year, Trump signed an order to keep the Guantanamo Bay detention facility open. The facility became notorious for prisoner abuse and torture during the early years of the Global War on Terror.


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