Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1386, (22 - 28 March 2018)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1386, (22 - 28 March 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Becoming more Trump

While the humiliating firing of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson might reflect a White House in disarray, others believe Trump now is more confident and in control, reports Khaled Dawoud


Becoming more Trump
Becoming more Trump

Critics of US President Donald Trump interpreted the humiliating manner in which US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired a week ago as yet another sign of a White House in disarray, with many top officials and aides being fired in what seemed like a revolving door policy since the Republican president took office more than a year ago.

However, in the appointment of CIA Director Mike Pompeo as the new US chief diplomat, appointing his deputy, Gina Haspel, as his replacement, becoming the first American woman to fill this high-profile post, other observers saw signs of confidence; that Trump was clearly stating that from now on he is fully in charge.

Both Pompeo and Haspel are known to be close to the president’s views, whether on Iran, North Korea, the non-existent Middle East peace process, or even the admissibility of torturing suspected terrorists held in US prisons. During his election campaign, Trump made controversial statements in support of the practice of waterboarding detainees in case that would help save American lives. Haspel was the CIA official running a secret US prison in Thailand where she not only oversaw the torture and waterboarding of suspected members of Al-Qaeda, but also agreed to destroy tapes recording the inhumane practice.

Tillerson’s reputation was that he was one of a few wise people in Trump’s administration, together with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, National Security Adviser H R McMaster and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. Compared to the novice Washington newcomer, Trump, those top officials were believed to be playing vital role in restraining a rather uncontrollable president who wakes up early in the morning to surprise the world, and his own staff, with inflammable tweets. After all, the veteran oil businessman, Tillerson, was fired with a tweet; an unprecedented manner of dealing with such a high-profile post.

Tillerson was clearly angry over the way in which he was fired. In the speech he delivered at the State Department after his removal, he didn’t mention Trump’s name even once, and had no words of gratitude for the man he worked with for just over a year. Tillerson made clear he was working to serve the American people, and that his loyalty was to the US Constitution, and not to any particular political figure.

Aides close to Trump said the US president happily removed Tillerson after several disagreements over Iran, Qatar, the decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Occupied Jerusalem and North Korea. Ahead of his expected, unprecedented meeting with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, in late May, a decision which he also reportedly took on his own, Trump seems to believe that he has settled into the job enough to rely on his instincts rather than on advisers who might believe they are smarter than the president.

Thus, it was no surprise that reports were rife that even Secretary of Defense Mattis, National Security Adviser McMaster and Kelly were not safe in their jobs. After a report in The Washington Post last week that McMaster was the next to go, Trump reportedly told him in a cabinet meeting that he was staying around, “and going nowhere”. However, amid increased leaks and reports on differences between Trump and his second national security adviser since he took office (the first, Michael Flynn, was fired after three weeks on the job over allegations he lied to superiors over his contacts with Russian officials), US media reports imply that McMaster’s departure will happen sooner or later.

What also seems certain is the removal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump attacked repeatedly for allegedly failing to stand by him in the Russia collusion scandal. Sessions rescued himself from investigations related to alleged contacts between Trump’s elections campaign in 2016 and senior Russian officials who offered him support to defeat his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. The investigation is now being handled by former FBI chief Robert Mueller, who was also not saved from Trump’s sharp attacks and even threats to end his assignment.

For months, Trump’s legal advisers implored him to avoid so much as mentioning the name of Mueller in his tweets, or to do anything that might imply he was attempting to interfere in the investigation. However, to confirm what seems like his emboldened mood, Trump criticised Mueller by name in a tweet, claiming that the former FBI chief, who is known as a Republican and was appointed by former Republican President George W Bush, was depending mainly on Democratic appointees in his investigation.

“Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters, and Zero Republicans?” Trump tweeted this weekend. “Another Dem recently added... does anyone think this is fair? And yet, there is NO COLLUSION!”

The attack on Mueller was sharply criticised even by Trump Republican loyalists, who warned him against firing the special counsel. Such a move, they said, would give the appearance of a corrupt attempt to short-circuit the investigation, and would set off a bipartisan backlash.

“If he tried to do that, that would be the beginning of the end of his presidency, because we’re a rule-of-law nation,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, an ally of the president, told CNN. “When it comes to Mr Mueller, he is following the evidence where it takes him, and I think it’s very important he be allowed to do his job without interference, and there are many Republicans who share my view.”

Representative Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, said if the president was innocent, he should “act like it” and leave Mueller alone, warning of dire repercussions if the president tried to fire the special counsel.

According to a January 2018 Brookings Institution report, the rate of turnover in the Trump White House so far is unprecedented. In its first year, a whopping 43 per cent of top Trump White House aides have either resigned, been fired or moved to different jobs. That’s more than triple the turnover in US President Barack Obama’s first year, and double the rate under President Ronald Reagan.

And that was before the surprise resignations of communications director Hope Hicks, chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and the firing of Tillerson.

Hicks, a close Trump confidante, was not the first communications director to leave the Trump White House. She was actually the fifth individual to serve in that position, with an average tenure of 88 days for each communications director. During the eight years of his presidency, Obama had a total of four communications directors. President George W Bush had five.

Cohn, also considered among the few wise figures at the Trump White House, said he considered resigning after Trump’s controversial statements following clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia between White supremacists and leftists, but stayed on to attempt to stop the US president from imposing what he considered economically destructive tariffs. Once Trump rebuked him on tariffs, Cohn, too, threw in the towel.

Of people holding dozens of senior positions in the Trump White House, the Brookings Institution study found that 21 of them had been fired or forced out. They included some of the most important jobs in Washington, such as deputy national security advisers Dina Powell and K T McFarland; Tom Price, secretary of health and human services, Sally Yates, former acting attorney general and former chief strategist Steve Bannon. Meanwhile, hundreds of top positions in every department and agency sit empty, absent any presidential appointment.

Contrary to descriptions of a constantly fuming, unstable president, friends and advisers say Trump is more at ease than he has been in some time. What seems like unchecked chaos to almost everyone else is Trump’s feeling he is in charge.

“He seems more relaxed, believe it or not,” Representative Peter T King said. “I would say it’s a combination of being more relaxed and also being frustrated by the fact that he feels like a lot of what he didn’t succeed at, or what hasn’t worked, is that he wasn’t allowed to be Trump,” he added.

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