Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Tempestuous Trump

Nearly a year after his election, Trump can’t stop picking fights, writes Khaled Dawoud


It wasn’t that US President Donald Trump was short of domestic or international crises and needed to create new ones. Yet this time, the trouble was in-house, with growing signs that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson might resign after reports that he called his boss a “moron”, and amid a bitter fight with a veteran Republican senator who warned that the US president was reckless enough to put the country “on the path to World War III”.

US media reports noted that Trump was still furious at Tillerson despite the latter’s public denial that he intended to resign and claim that he enjoys cordial relation with the president.

Instead of seeking to put his own house in order, Trump chose, instead, as usual, to attack the media that reported the alleged statements made by Tillerson. Trump vented by saying that the US television network NBC, which first reported on the increasing fissure between the president and his secretary of state, was “run by morons”. He repeated his complaints against “fake news” that has allegedly targeted him since taking office early this year.

NBC reported that an angry and frustrated Tillerson had strongly considered resigning over Trump’s speech in July to the annual jamboree of the Boy Scouts of America. At the event, Trump went full-on campaign-style politics, lashing out at former US president Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, all while eliciting 2016-era chants of “Lock her up!” and “Build the wall!”

The NBC report also detailed that Tillerson had called Trump a “moron”, that Vice President Mike Pence had to step in to keep Tillerson on the job, and that Tillerson had questioned US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s utility in the Trump administration.

Tillerson quickly held a press conference shortly after the story surfaced to deny certain aspects of the story. But he conspicuously did not deny the “moron” claim. His decision at the presser not to aggressively deny that he had called Trump a “moron” for having little-to-no grasp on policy, diplomacy and international affairs further enraged the president, who steamed and grumbled for hours straight.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders didn’t explicitly deny the story so much as use it as an opportunity to take another whack at NBC and the liberal media.

“I haven’t heard him say that,” she said. “But there has definitely been frustration voiced by many about NBC’s fake news reporting on this issue.”

But despite Trump’s displeasure, Tillerson appears to have a hold on his job, for now. The president does not have the immediate desire to see yet more turnover in his young administration, or to see coverage painting a Tillerson ouster as evidence of chaos in his ranks, according to a White House official who spoke to The Daily Beast. And Republicans in the Senate have all but begged Trump to keep him on board.

The relationship between the president and his top diplomat wasn’t always smooth. At the start of his administration, Trump was thrilled to have hired the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil as his top diplomat, and has both privately and publicly played up Tillerson’s international credentials.

But since taking his job at the State Department, Tillerson has struggled to adjust to Washington politics. He has grown increasingly frustrated with his diplomatic efforts being consistently undercut by President Trump, sometimes via humiliating tweets. After news broke that Tillerson hoped to explore multiple backchannels between himself and the North Korean regime in order to de-escalate a crisis, Trump — angered by Tillerson’s approach — publicly told his secretary of state that he was “wasting his time”.

There were similar reports on disagreements between Trump and Tillerson on how to handle the crisis between Qatar and its three Gulf neighbours, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as well as Egypt. While Trump made statements tilting towards Saudi criticism of Qatar’s policies, Tillerson was more in favour of calming down the confrontation.

And as if reports on administration infighting were not enough, Trump decided to pick a fight with Republican Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker who chose to side with Tillerson. “I think Secretary Tillerson, [Defense] Secretary [James] Mattis and Chief of Staff [John] Kelly are those people that help separate our country from chaos,” Corker said last week. “I support them very much,” he added.

The president retaliated Sunday by saying the retiring senator “didn’t have the guts to run” for another term. He also claimed that Corker “begged” him for an endorsement.

“Senator Bob Corker ‘begged’ me to endorse him for re-election in Tennessee. I said ‘NO’ and he dropped out (said he could not win without my endorsement),” Trump wrote on Twitter. “He also wanted to be Secretary of State, I said ‘NO THANKS.’ He is also largely responsible for the horrendous Iran Deal!”

Corker responded on Twitter an hour later, saying that the White House had become “an adult day care centre.” He then unloaded in an interview with The New York Times, saying in public what many of his Republican colleagues say in private — that the president is dangerously erratic, treats his high office like “a reality show”, has to be contained by his staff and is reckless enough to put the country “on the path to World War III”.

Trump’s rupture with Corker has widened the schism with his own party on Capitol Hill, potentially jeopardising the future of his legislative agenda even as he presses lawmakers to approve deep tax cuts. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker also has significant influence over appointments and legislation important to the White House.

Corker could block the confirmation of a new secretary of state should Trump push out Tillerson. He also would play a key role in any decision on whether to tear up the Iran nuclear deal, as Trump has been pressing in recent weeks.

Corker, known as a moderate, had measured his occasional criticisms of Trump for months in hopes of influencing his foreign policy, but evidently feels liberated now that he has decided not to run for a third term.

The White House spent Monday telling allies that Corker was responsible for the fight, not Trump, and that the senator “was an attention-seeking obstructionist”.

“I find tweets like this to be incredibly irresponsible,” Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counsellor, told Fox News, referring to Corker’s posted response to Trump Sunday. “It adds to the insulting that the mainstream media and the president’s detractors — almost a year after this election, they still can’t accept the election results. It adds to their ability and their cover to speak about the president of the United States… in ways that no president should be talked about.”

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