U.S. President Donald Trump has again cleaned house, this time firing his top diplomat and replacing him with his hawkish spy chief in a move that could have wide-ranging implications for a planned summit between the American and North Korean leaders slated to take place sometime before the end of May.
Trump ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday, abruptly ending the pair’s rocky relationship via a single tweet announcing his firing. In the tweet, Trump praised Tillerson’s service and said he would nominate his CIA director, Mike Pompeo, to be his new secretary of state.
The president’s move comes as his administration ramps up preparations for high-stakes and historic talks between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and the change-up — just weeks before that meeting — is likely to put a bumpy road ahead of a State Department that is already grappling with serious challenges, including staffing issues and low morale amid budget cuts.
Trump and other White House officials pointed to rifts over a host of issues — including Tillerson’s approach to the North Korea nuclear crisis — as the rationale for his dismissal but appeared to single out his disagreement with the president over the Iran nuclear accord as the main factor in the decision.
The U.S. leader has repeatedly expressed his dissatisfaction with the Iran deal, one of the signature achievements of his predecessor, President Barack Obama.
“When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible. I guess he thought it was OK. I wanted to either break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently,” Trump said Tuesday, in reference to Tillerson. “So we were not really thinking the same.”
Experts have said that the U.S. cannot unilaterally re-impose sanctions on Iran in an attempt to change the original terms of the agreement without violating at least the spirit of the deal without risking the door for Tehran to walk away opening.
Still, Pompeo’s nomination has made such a move a much more plausible scenario.
Pompeo, considered extremely hawkish on both North Korea and Iran, has taken some of the hardest lines among top administration officials, advocating for regime change in North Korea and vehemently opposing the nuclear deal with Tehran. These beliefs dovetail nicely with Trump’s views about heaping “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang and that the Iran deal should be radically altered or scrapped.
Tillerson, by comparison, had espoused a more tempered approach to both Iran and the North, urging Trump to stick to the nuke deal despite its perceived flaws and to pursue dialogue with Pyongyang months before the president’s sudden decision to meet Kim.
“Rex Tillerson was a moderating influence on the administration’s foreign policy and his departure may have significant implications for the administration’s approach on key issues, including the Trump-Kim summit and the future of the Iran deal,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington.
But any decision by Trump to withdraw from the Iran deal by May 12, the next deadline for him to recertify it, would likely spell doom for any diplomatic approach to North Korea and threaten to return the U.S. to the precipice of conflict with the nuclear-armed country.
Such a move by Trump would raise the question among the North Koreans that if the United States could not be trusted to honor the Iranian nuclear agreement, how could it be trusted to honor a potentially more complex deal with Pyongyang.
“Changing the Iran agreement would be terrible for U.S. negotiators on North Korea,” said Philip Yun, executive director of the Ploughshares Fund, an NGO dedicated to containing the spread of nuclear weapons.
“Unilaterally rolling back or killing the Iran deal, directly or indirectly, would tell the North Koreans in the most explicit way that the promises of the U.S. do not mean anything,” Yun added.
Last Thursday, Trump agreed to meet with Kim by the end of May at an as yet undetermined location, just hours after he was briefed by a top South Korean official who had returned from meeting the North Korean leader in Pyongyang earlier in the week. At that meeting, South Korean officials said they had secured a commitment from Pyongyang to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and an offer to hold talks with the U.S. on how to approach that issue.
Now, Pompeo — a former U.S. Army officer and Harvard Law School graduate who served in the House of Representatives before he was picked to lead the CIA and is known to have Trump’s ear — is expected to play a key role in planning for the Trump-Kim talks and on the larger North Korea issue.
Pompeo has served up some of the administration’s strongest words on North Korea, including openly speaking about the prospect of regime change in the isolated country.
At a security forum in Colorado last July, Pompeo said: “It would be a great thing to denuclearize the peninsula, to get those weapons off of that, but the thing that is most dangerous about it is the character who holds the control over them today.
He continued: “So from the administration’s perspective, the most important thing we can do is separate those two. Right? Separate capacity and someone who might well have intent and break those two apart.”
While a tougher line on Pyongyang is almost a given with Pompeo leading the North Korean diplomatic charge, Trump’s mercurial nature rases questions about whether the White House might adopt a harsher tone toward the Kim regime.
Either way, the White House could harness the former spymaster’s hard-line positions and use them to its advantage in any negotiations with Pyongyang and later Congress, said Yun.
“For the North Koreans, there would be the more uncertainty as to use of force by the U.S. in that Pompeo has been so hard-line,” Yun said. “This and the fact that the North would perceive Pompeo as a better representative of Trump’s thinking could make the North more amenable to a deal favorable to the U.S.”
Yun continued: “If there ends up being some kind of deal between the U.S. and North Korea, Pompeo would be in a better position to sell this — something ‘Nixon going to China’ — in the U.S.”
Whatever the case, the White House must first overcome the vexing time constraints that the confirmation and transition process will put on already rushed preparations for a meeting of potentially historic magnitude.
“The reshuffling at State will likely increase the challenges of preparing for Trump’s high-stakes summit,” said Kimball. “At best, this meeting might be the launching point for a sustained negotiation on steps toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and establishing a peace regime” there.
And perhaps more than the rush, Trump and Pompeo will assuredly have to consider the timing of any decision on Iran by the May 12 deadline, which could come just ahead of the Kim talks.
“If Trump really wants to secure a deal with Kim Jong Un or use his May summit meeting to launch negotiations on the terms and timelines for North Korean denuclearization, it would be foolhardy to decide that same month to unilaterally discard the Iran nuclear deal,” Kimball added.
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