President Trump’s shake-up of his national security team will leave him without his top diplomat just as he hopes to set up an unprecedented summit with one of the United States’ foremost adversaries, North Korea.
Trump abruptly fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday, announcing via Twitter that he would nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him, and CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel to take Pompeo’s place. The moves came only days after Trump agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un by the end of May.
That means senators will have to work quickly to confirm Pompeo if they want him to be involved in any negotiations with Pyongyang. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to hold a confirmation hearing for Pompeo in April. Even though the Senate approved Pompeo’s CIA nomination by a comfortable margin last year, the confirmation process for secretary of State is still expected to be lengthy and contentious as lawmakers apply fresh scrutiny to his views on North Korea and a host of other issues.
At a press briefing Tuesday, Tillerson said he would delegate his duties to his deputy, John Sullivan, by the end of the day, and formally step down from his post at the end of the month, while encouraging other officials to remain in their jobs at the State Department.
“Would it be better to have a secretary of State in place? Sure. We might have one in place by the time [the meeting] actually occurs,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said.
“But there are a lot of people around here who have a lot of institutional knowledge” about North Korea, he added.
While rumors of Tillerson leaving the State Department had been floating around Washington for months, Tuesday’s dismissal still caught Republicans on Capitol Hill by surprise. GOP lawmakers had nothing but praise for the former ExxonMobil CEO, but most believed the change would ultimately be for the best because Pompeo, a former House Republican who has long been a Trump ally, is more in line with the president both in terms of style and substance.
Particularly on North Korea, Pompeo has expressed a more hawkish attitude than Tillerson, who had long been open to starting a dialogue with Pyongyang and had ruled out regime change as an option. Pompeo, on the other hand, has signaled support for regime change. And he took a harder line on the potential North Korean summit, telling Fox News Sunday over the weekend that “there will be no concessions made” by the U.S.
As for his meeting with Kim, Trump said Tuesday that he “really didn’t discuss it very much” with Tillerson, adding, “I made that decision by myself.”
“I actually got along well with Rex, but really it was a different mind-set, a different thinking,” Trump told reporters outside the White House. “With … Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process. I think it’s going to go very well.”
But before Pompeo can take over at the State Department, the Senate will need to confirm him. Given that the administration is on the cusp of a new diplomatic effort with North Korea, congressional Democrats argued that this was the wrong time to create yet another vacancy at State. They raised fresh concerns that Trump has yet to nominate anyone to be ambassador to South Korea, and that Joseph Yun, the longtime special representative for North Korea policy at the State Department, recently retired.
“This is a commander in chaos,” said Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We have a State Department that’s been emaciated and a diplomacy that has been undermined a critical time.”
The Senate confirmed Pompeo as CIA director by a 66-32 vote 14 months ago, but that doesn’t mean the process will be smooth sailing this time around. If most or all Democrats decide to oppose Pompeo, there will be even less margin for error.
Republicans now only control 51 seats in the upper chamber. John McCain has not been in Washington for several months as he receives treatment for brain cancer in Arizona. And Rand Paul voted against Pompeo last year.
Most Democrats said they wouldn’t decide how to vote on Pompeo until after the confirmation hearing or meeting with him in person. Asked if he thought it was possible that every Senate Democrat would vote against Pompeo, Minority Whip Dick Durbin said, “No, I wouldn’t go that far.”
“There are differing sets of skills. Being a CIA director is one set of skills; being secretary of State requires diplomatic skills,” Menendez said. “We’ll have to wait and see how he answers questions.”
At the very least, it appears most Republicans will once again be on board with Pompeo. For instance, Sen. Marco Rubio, who was one of the last GOP holdouts on Tillerson before backing him, quickly released a statement saying he would “enthusiastically support” Pompeo’s nomination.
“I hope people in the body understand that there’s no more important job in terms of secretary of State when it comes to diplomacy, and that all those who want diplomacy, like me, to end the conflict with North Korea, you need to give the president the team he wants,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said.