The news that President Trump had abruptly fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson while he was on an overseas trip hit Capitol Hill Tuesday morning, as details trickled out throughout the day about the unclear circumstances of the ouster and what will happen in the weeks ahead.
“The State Department is in chaos,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) exclaimed to reporters, shaking his head as he stepped on the escalator in the Capitol’s basement.
Reacting to the news about Tillerson and another top State Department official fired Tuesday for contradicting the White House’s version of events, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) quipped: “At the rate this administration is hemorrhaging staff, pretty soon the President’s barber is going to play a big role in American foreign policy.”
Tillerson held a press conference Tuesday afternoon and revealed that he received a call from President Trump several hours after learning he was fired on Twitter. The axe fell a few days after he was alerted that a decision on his firing was imminent, causing him to cut short his trip to Africa and fly home to deal with the fallout. The unceremonious ouster is rankling Republicans and Democrats alike on Capitol Hill, even those who were not great fans of Tillerson’s leadership.
“It’s hard to believe that a president would be so irresponsible to fire the Secretary of State while the Secretary is overseas representing our country,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) vented to reporters Tuesday. “It’s just unfathomable that anyone would think that’s appropriate.”
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), while praising Tillerson’s likely replacement Pompeo, voiced concerns about the morning’s upheaval.
“It’s not a good sign when you’re fired by Twitter,” he said. “I mean, c’mon. We ought to have a better process than that. That’s just not a very respectful way to do it.”
Yet Republican allies of President Trump were unsurprisingly supportive of the sudden cabinet shuffle, noting that it followed months of tension between Trump and Tillerson. The President repeatedly and publicly contradicted and humiliated his secretary of state, while Tillerson reportedly called Trump a “moron” and considered resigning months ago.
“I think it’s important that the President and Secretary of State are on the same wavelength and I think the President now will be,” the normally tight-lipped Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) told reporters Tuesday, adding that he hopes the Senate will act swiftly to confirm Pompeo to the role. “We have not just the North Korea summit coming up in the next two to three months, but the next decision about the Iran certification in two months. It’s important that the President has the team he wants in place before those two events happen.”
On Iran, Pompeo is expected to support Trump’s desire to terminate the nuclear agreement crafted by the Obama administration—a break from Tillerson, who had warned ending the agreement would be extremely dangerous.
“I think it means that the likelihood of withdrawing from the agreement goes up, if you don’t change the sunset clause and deal with some other deficiencies,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told reporters. Graham also expressed unease about the woman tapped to replace Pompeo at the CIA—Gina Haspel—whose record includes overseeing a CIA black site that waterboarded detainees during the George W. Bush administration.
“My main concern is: does she now know that those techniques are not allowed?” Graham said. “At the time, there was doubt. Today, there is no doubt. That will drive my thinking more than anything else.”
Lawmakers noted that it’s uncertain whether Haspel or Pompeo can muster the 60 votes necessary for their Senate confirmations. Even Democrats who voted for Pompeo’s confirmation to lead the CIA last year now say they have concerns.