FT COLUMN: Appointing Pompeo brings Trump’s America First policy closer
And then there was one. With the exception of Jim Mattis, the US defence secretary, Donald Trump has now cleared the decks of people who stand up to him. The ousting of Rex Tillerson, whose firing was announced on Twitter, eliminates the gap between Trump’s anti-globalist instincts and the stance of America’s chief diplomat. Mike Pompeo, Tillerson’s replacement, shares the president’s undiplomatic mind-set. Pompeo is a Trump enabler. Trump’s America First foreign policy is now closer to becoming a reality.
The portents for the world are far-reaching. One of Tillerson’s greatest sins was to call Trump a "moron". His leaked outburst followed a meeting in which the president had said that the US should multiply its nuclear weapons arsenal tenfold. Tillerson’s derogatory response broke two cardinal rules of working for Trump. The first was to show disloyalty, which Trump cannot abide. Questioning his IQ is taboo. The second was to repeatedly clash with him on the big questions. In practice they amount to the same thing.
Gary Cohn, who resigned last week as Trump’s economic adviser, also broke both rules. Last summer he told the Financial Times that he disapproved of Trump’s even-handedness on the alt-right’s clash with protesters in Charlottesville. He also argued against Trump’s protectionist instincts — as did Tillerson. HR McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, is no longer seen as a brake on Trump — and his days are widely rumoured to be numbered.
In Trump’s world, disloyalty and disagreement eventually blur into one. In Pompeo, Trump has a true loyalist. Whatever Trump wants, he will prosecute. Pompeo has often crossed that line as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) — a role that is meant to channel neutral advice rather than policy cheerleading. For all his failings, which were manifold, Tillerson did not mute his disagreements with Trump.
Chief among these were Trump’s impulses on Russia, Iran and US engagement with the Muslim world. It is no coincidence that Tillerson’s last comment before being fired was to echo the view of British Prime Minister Theresa May, that it was "highly likely" Russia had poisoned a former spy on British soil. (Trump took 24 hours to respond to May). Whether Tillerson knew he was about to be fired when he said that is beside the point.
Trump, who is loath to criticise Vladimir Putin, said he and Tillerson "disagreed on many things". By contrast, he and Pompeo "have a very similar thought process — I think it is going to go very well". It is worth stressing that May implied that Russia had attacked the UK, which could trigger the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (Nato’s) article five on collective defence. Tillerson did his best to persuade Trump to support Nato in public. He was not always successful. It is an open question whether Pompeo will even try.
Second, Pompeo is a visceral critic of the Iran nuclear deal, which he says should be scrapped. He is of one mind with Trump on this. Tillerson and Mattis have argued that torpedoing the deal would be disastrous. It could lead to Iran’s rapid nuclearisation and war with Saudi Arabia. It would also deepen America’s split with its European allies. The chances that Trump will pull the plug on the deal when it comes up for certification in a few weeks have risen sharply.
The potential impact on Trump’s planned summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is great. North Korea experts dismiss the chances that Trump could persuade "rocket man" to denuclearise the Korean peninsula — Trump’s explicit aim. If the US pulled out of the Iran deal, Kim would have even less incentive to strike a bargain with Trump. The dangers of a belligerent fallout from a failed Kim summit are acute. As CIA chief, Pompeo has spoken publicly about removing Kim.
Finally, there is the Muslim world. Pompeo’s view is in line with the clash of civilisations argument made by Stephen Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist. The two are friends. Pompeo has frequently spoken the language of holy war between radical Islam and a Christian West. By contrast, Tillerson stuck to the traditional script about Islamist bad actors perverting a noble religion. Where this will lead is ominous for US relations in the Middle East and beyond.
On Tuesday, Trump said he was now "closer to having the cabinet I want". Two men stand between Trump and an unfettered presidency. The first is Mattis. His role now assumes even greater importance. The second is Robert Mueller, the special counsel. Their job security is now indistinguishable from US national security.
© The Financial Times Limited 2018