I’m not suggesting Russia was actually responsible for Tillerson’s exit, of course. After all, Russia would never try to interfere with the U.S. President’s pick for Secretary of State!
But perhaps Rex Tillerson’s aggressive response to Russia’s attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia was the last straw for our Putin-loving President.
Let’s review the bidding, including the incident and the different responses from Tillerson and the rest of the administration.
Skripal, recall, was a double agent who betrayed Russia, was convicted of treason, and was traded as part of a swap of traitors. He had been poisoned with a nerve agent that very few possess. Putin is among that very few, and the use of the agent is Putin sending the message that, while he will publicly deny it, he is the one behind the attack.
Theresa May has said it is “highly likely” Russia was behind the attack:
The PM said it was “highly likely” Russia was responsible for the Salisbury attack.
The Foreign Office summoned Russia’s ambassador to provide an explanation.
Mrs May said if there is no “credible response” by the end of Tuesday, the UK would conclude there has been an “unlawful use of force” by Moscow.
May’s only caveat was that maybe Russia lost control of the nerve agent: “Either this was a direct action by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of its potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”
Meanwhile, our boy Vlad is just laughing it off, smirking as he responds to questions about it.
For the most part, the Trump administration has been curiously silent about responsibility for the attack. Just yesterday, Sarah Sanders refused to go as far as Prime Minister May, and reporters noticed:
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders stopped short of blaming Russia for a poison attack Monday, shortly after British Prime Minister Theresa May said it was “highly likely” Russia was responsible for the incident in southwest England.
“The attack was reckless, indiscriminate, and irresponsible,” Sanders said at the daily White House press briefing.
But when pressed on responsibility, Sanders said only: “Right now we are standing with our U.K. ally. I think they are still working through even some of the details on that.”
Note that I said that the Trump administration had been silent about responsibility “for the most part.” Guess who wasn’t silent at all? If you said Rex Tillerson, you get the kewpie doll. Yup: Tillerson, uniquely among Trump administration officials, had already placed the blame squarely on Moscow:
“We have full confidence in the UK’s investigation and its assessment that Russia was likely responsible for the nerve agent attack that took place in Salisbury last week,” Tillerson said in the statement.
He continued, “There is never a justification for this type of attack — the attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation — and we are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behavior. From Ukraine to Syria — and now the UK — Russia continues to be an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens.”
The State Department’s position on the attack appears [to] be much stronger than the White House’s response.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders called the attack “reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible,” but stopped short of blaming Russia.
Unlike Sanders, Tillerson did not mince words:
Speaking to reporters while traveling in Africa, Tillerson said the attack “clearly came from Russia” and would “certainly trigger a response.”
If you believe the White House’s timing, Trump told Tillerson on Friday that he was going to be replaced. If true, that would tend to undercut the notion that the ouster was over the response to Russia’s evident assassination attempt. Prime Minister May’s direct accusation came just yesterday — supposedly long after Trump had made his decision.
Then again, that means the news wasn’t leaked for the entire weekend — an amazing job of secrecy from a White House not known for keeping such things under wraps. And then there’s this:
W.H. claims Trump asked Tillerson to step aside on Friday. Rex was in the middle of a week-long Africa trip.
State Dept claims the two men never spoke. No mention of Friday call.
Which side is telling the truth?
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) March 13, 2018
Also, while May only yesterday directly pointed the finger at Russia, Skripal was poisoned on March 4, and it was immediately evident who the prime suspect was. Perhaps T Rex and Trump were already having disagreements about how to handle it.
This controversy is hardly the only issue Trump has had with Tillerson, of course. Trump has publicly identified the Iran deal as a point of contention, and always lurking in the background was Tillerson’s continual refusal to deny that he had called Trump a “f***ing moron.” The writing has been on the wall for a while.
Still: the timing of all this is, shall we say, interesting. My guess is that we have not heard the last of it.
UPDATE: Tillerson called Trump a “f***ing moron” and not a “f***ing idiot.” I have fixed the post to reflect the correct insult.