The minute it was announced Tuesday morning that President Donald Trump had decided to part ways with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him, there was an undercurrent of “I told you so!” from some left-leaning media outlets sure this meant a serious fracturing of the administration.
However, the decision to replace Tillerson with Pompeo (who Neil Stevens profiled this morning when news broke) had reportedly been in the works since way back in October 2017 — which likely means Tillerson was aware of the plan, if not the exact time frame.
For his part, Trump chalked the decision up to chemistry, as he told reporters Tuesday morning:
“I’ve gotten along well with Mike Pompeo, and frankly I get along well with Rex too. I wish Rex a lot of good things. I think he’s going to be very happy. I think Rex will be much happier now but I really appreciate his service; but with Mike we’ve had a very good chemistry right from the beginning.”
But there may be more at play here than simple chemistry. Tillerson had reportedly been working on a fix for the Iran deal, rather than just doing away with Obama’s plan to provide a pathway to nuclear weapons for that notoriously anti-American Middle Eastern nation.
Back in January, Tillerson said he understood his boss wanted to either fix the legislation or get rid of it. Tillerson set about working on the former.
“The president said he is either going to fix it or cancel it,” Tillerson told the AP as he sat in front of a fireplace in his State Department office suite. “We are in the process of trying to deliver on the promise he made to fix it.”
One option lawmakers are discussing with the White House is removing the requirement that Trump certify Iranian compliance. Another possibility is changing the law so certification occurs far less often, officials said. Any changes would have to get significant support among Republicans, including many die-hard opponents of the nuclear deal, and some Democrats who largely support it.
It’s unclear if changing the so-called Iran Nuclear Review Act will be enough to prevent Trump from tearing up the “worst deal ever,” as he has time and again threatened.
Tillerson said the administration’s approach has been to first fix the U.S. law that governs how the U.S. adheres to the deal, and then work with European allies that helped broker the accord to address its shortcomings. Those flaws, Trump says, include the fact that key nuclear restrictions on Iran expire after several years, and the lack of restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile testing.
Trump reportedly does not like the process of giving a “thumbs up” to Iran every three months — which is how often the U.S. must recertify the deal — and it looks like the much more hawkish-on-Iran Pompeo could come in and possibly address that frustration.
Pompeo, named as his pick for secretary of state by Trump on Tuesday shortly after he announced Tillerson’s departure on Twitter, has taken a notoriously tough stance on Iran in the past in his erstwhile role as director of the CIA.
Not only has Pompeo likened Iran to the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group, calling the country a “thuggish police state” in a speech in October, he has also promised to constrain Iran’s investment environment and “roll back” its 2015 nuclear deal.
Showing his disdain for the internationally-brokered agreement, Pompeo said in October that the U.S. intelligence community and Treasury Department could make it harder for Tehran to meddle in regional affairs by exposing Iranian businesses that have ties to the nation’s elite security force.
While it appears Tillerson was tasked with convincing Trump there was a “fix” to the Iran deal, the nomination of Pompeo would indicate that Tillerson could not find such a salve. Now it could fall to Pompeo to rid the U.S. of the deal altogether.