26 August 2019
Mike Pompeo (seen in picture) is widely tipped to be the most likely person to succeed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson if rumors about the latter's potential departure turn out to be true. Photo: Reuters
Mike Pompeo (seen in picture) is widely tipped to be the most likely person to succeed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson if rumors about the latter's potential departure turn out to be true. Photo: Reuters

How much longer can Tillerson hang on to his job?

Ever since Donald Trump took office as US president one year ago, many of his key officials have either quit or been fired one after another: James Comey, Sally Yates, Michael Flynn, Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci and Steve Bannon, to name the most prominent ones.

And recently, rumors about the departure of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by the end of this month have been going viral in Washington.

There is even talk that Tillerson himself has personally confirmed the rumors when he met with a former diplomat in Washington a couple of months ago.

But of course, in the “Trump Age”, there is only a fine line between authentic news and fake news, and things in Washington could often take a totally expected turn at the very last moment. Therefore, up to this point, rumors are still rumors, and Tillerson is still in charge of the US State Department.

However, undeniably, it has already become an open secret that Tillerson doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of president Trump’s inner circle.

As a relative “centrist” who is dismayed at Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and provocative posturing, Tillerson has been under attack by the alt-right that is dominating the White House. As such, rumors about his departure, to a certain extent, aren’t totally unfounded or groundless.

In fact Tillerson has one thing in common with all the other key officials who have already been sacked by Trump, which is, they often publicly disagreed with the president on major issues in a high-profile manner.

For example, Tillerson and Trump had opposing views over the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar last year, not to mention that the State Secretary has publicly questioned the president’s stance on the North Korea nuclear crisis on numerous occasions.

Given that, one shouldn’t be surprised at all if Tillerson is really on top of President Trump’s “You’re fired” list.

And that automatically raises the question: if Tillerson is really set to leave office soon, who will be the most likely person to succeed him? At present, the incumbent CIA director Mike Pompeo is widely tipped for the top job.

A former House Republican representing the State of Kansas and a Tea Party member, Pompeo, like Trump, is a staunch supporter of Israel.

And unlike Tillerson, Pompeo is in favor of adopting separate approaches to dealing with Kim Jong-un and North Korea. Or simply put, he is implicitly for a regime change in Pyongyang. In contrast, Tillerson has insisted that all the US should do is to guarantee a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, while leaving Kim and his dynasty intact.

In another case, while Tillerson expressed openly last month that there is evidence pointing to Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, Pompeo, in contrast, has publicly dismissed such accusations against Russia in his capacity as the CIA chief.

All these signs reflect that Trump and Pompeo do see eye to eye with each other on quite a lot of fundamental issues, and it would therefore be a logical inference that if Pompeo really succeeded Tillerson as Secretary of State, he would probably get along with Trump, at least during the early days of his office.

However, the problem is, the US Secretary of State is a top-ranking figure and a key cabinet member, and also has solid and decisive power on diplomatic issues.

Therefore, if President Trump eventually appoints one of his trusted men who doesn’t have the same degree of political energy as Rex Tillerson or even Hillary Clinton, and who is not a career diplomat, as the next Secretary of State, chances are it might further undermine Washington’s diplomatic leverage on the international scene.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 17

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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