Jules Witcover: Trump refutes story on firing Tillerson as fake news
WASHINGTON — President Trump resumed his war on the American press Friday by tweeting that a widely circulated report that he was planning to fire his secretary of state was “fake news.”
In the tweet, he wrote: “The media has been speculating that I fired Rex Tillerson or that he would be leaving soon. While we disagree on certain subjects, (I call the final shots) we work well together and America is highly respected again!”
The story that Tillerson’s dismissal was imminent was first reported by The New York Times and The Washington Post, both frequent Trump critics, and was picked up by many other print, television and internet outlets.
The Times also reported that the president was considering his current CIA director, former Rep. Mike Pompeo, to replace Tillerson and GOP Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, an ultraconservative, take over the CIA. The stories attributed word of the planned moves to unidentified friends and associates of the president.
The story came at precisely the time Tillerson was laboring to avert nuclear war with North Korea, as news came to light of its latest test of a new ballistic missile of true intercontinental range and much greater destructive power.
The president earlier had told Tillerson he was wasting his time trying to talk dictator Kim Jong Un out of containing his nuclear weapons program. Now, suddenly came the news of Tillerson’s imminent departure, leaked to the New York Times and The Washington Post, and hence to the world.
The leaks were accompanied by word that Pompeo and Cotton would bring a sharper edge to the national security and intelligence communities.
If the purported moves were somehow intended to be a warning to North Korea’s military leaders of stiffening of American resolve and an unsubtle push out the door to Tillerson, they came at a particularly unsettling time. It smacked of crude presidential pique against the prime cabinet member who earlier had been reported by NBC News to have called Trump “a moron.”
Tillerson, a political foreign policy neophyte, has already been drawn criticism from State Department veterans for staff dismissals and slow hiring for key diplomatic positions. He was, in the story refuted by Trump, to finish the year as secretary of state.
The president, asked by a reporter Thursday whether he wanted Tillerson to stay in the job, enigmatically replied, making no reference to fake news: “He’s here. Rex is here.” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, asked the same question, said Tillerson was committed “to close out what has been a successful year” and that there were “no personnel announcements to make at this time.” But she added semi-obliquely: “When the president loses confidence in someone, they will no longer serve in the capacity they’re in.”
Beyond whatever cool relations may have developed between Trump and Tillerson, they basically were strangers before the latter’s appointment. As the former CEO of ExxonMobil, he is wealthy in his own right and can comfortably retire or presumably return to the oil world, in which he was highly esteemed.
In any event, one place where he might well have been missed upon departure from the Trump administration would be in his unofficial partnership with Secretary of Defense James Mattis as watchdogs over the president’s impulsive and often intemperate behavior and tweeting. Mattis, asked by reporters what he made of the leaked accounts of Tillerson’s departure, said: “I make nothing of it. There’s nothing to it.”
One major player in the Tillerson foreign policy circle, Senate Foreign Relations Commitee Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee, while saying he didn’t believe the departure story, suggested it might not be Trump but rather Tillerson’s rivals within the administration who were plotting to depose him.
“I don’t think Secretary Tillerson’s getting ready to be ousted,” Corker said to reporters. “It’s been evident to me that for some time somebody has been seeking to undermine his presence. I don’t know who that is.”
There certainly is enough intrigue in the Trump administration to believe almost anything these days. That includes mounting speculation about impeachment of the president himself as a result of the Robert Mueller investigation into possible election collusion with the Russians.
The latest guilty plea of former Trump aide Gen. Michael Flynn to charges of lying to the FBI smacks of closing the circle against Trump. What will come next, we can only wonder.
Trump’s tweeted refutation of the Tillerson story enables him to continue his war against the journalism profession and cast doubt on any negative coverage of his administration to come.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.