Firing Tillerson: Was Trump Thinking of Russia?

Rex Tillerson and Donald Trump

While no definitive connections have been proven between the unexpected and unusual firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and statements Tillerson just made about Russia’s attack on the UK, the timing between the two events and the subsequent firing of State Department spokesperson Steve Goldstein pose several important questions. Most important among them: Was Trump thinking of Russia when he fired Tillerson via Twitter?

It wouldn’t be the first time Trump had Russia in mind when firing a high-ranking official.


Shortly after firing FBI Director James Comey, Donald Trump made several attempts at obfuscating the real reasons behind the termination before admitting to Lester Holt in an interview that he had the FBI Russia investigation on his mind when he ordered Comey’s firing.

He said:

“Regardless of recommendation I was going to fire Comey knowing there was no good time to do it. In fact, when I decided to just do it I said to myself, ‘you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’ And the reason they should have won it is the electoral college is almost impossible for a Republican to win.”

The circumstances of both the Comey and Tillerson terminations can’t be ignored, either. Just as Comey found out from a news broadcast he’d been fired, Tillerson found out about his termination via Twitter. In both cases Trump couldn’t bring himself to speak to either man personally. Both terminations were rushed, too.

In both cases, almost no one knew the termination was about to happen.

In remarks to press following the termination tweet, Trump confirmed it was his decision alone. “I made that decision by myself. Rex wasn’t, as you know, in this country,” he said.

Despite his attempt at portraying the severing of ties as amicable, State Department spokesperson Steve Goldstein released a statement on behalf of Tillerson contradicting the White House narrative.

Confusion and Conflict

In a statement released to press shortly after Trump fired Tillerson via Twitter, State Department spokesperson Steve Goldstein said:

The Secretary had every intention of staying because of the critical progress made in national security. He will miss his colleagues at the the [sic] Department of State and the foreign ministers he has worked with throughout the world.

The Secretary did not speak to the President and is unaware of the reason, but he is grateful for the opportunity to serve, and still believes strongly that public service is a noble calling.

We wish Secretary Designate Pompeo well.

While brief, the statement packs a punch.

The statement confirms Trump never spoke with Tillerson before firing him in addition to noting Tillerson thought he would continue serving as Secretary of State up until the moment Trump fired him.

Perhaps more interestingly, this statement – an unusual one for such a high-profile termination where departments don’t often contradict the White House – publicly and explicitly called the Trump narrative false.

As Vox pointed out in their coverage of the termination and the subsequent statement:

Tillerson, whose tenure in Foggy Bottom was widely seen among foreign policy experts as one of the worst (if not the worst) in modern history, still believed he was doing a good job at the time of his firing.

It’s still unclear why, exactly, the secretary of state was just fired at this particular moment in his spectacularly unimpressive tenure as America’s top diplomat.

In the Trump administration, chaos is something of a norm. But this is shocking even when grading on that curve.

While Trump didn’t bother to offer the specific reasoning behind firing Tillerson, he did immediately fire State Department spokesperson Steve Goldstein for leaking the truth about the termination.

From Russia With Love

Much like the Comey firing, several theories already exist attempting to understand and parse the sudden and unexplained firing of Rex Tillerson. Among them are performance, loyalty, the time Tillerson allegedly called Trump a ‘moron,’ and Tillerson’s recent statement calling out Russia for attacking private citizens in the UK.

The truth may be a combination of those factors.

In the statement addressing the Russian nerve gas attack, Tillerson said, “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.”

He added:

“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 White House response to the attack outright refused to name Russia, even when pressed by reporters. CNN reported:

The State Department’s position on the attack appears 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.

“We’ve been monitoring the incident closely, take it very seriously,” Sanders said at Monday’s news briefing. “The use of a highly lethal nerve agent against UK citizens on UK soil is an outrage. The attack was reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible. We offer the fullest condemnation, and we extend our sympathy to the victims and their families, and our support to the UK government. We stand by our closest ally and the special relationship that we have.”

Pressed further on whether Russia was behind the act, Sanders said, “Right now, we are standing with our UK ally.”

That’s a striking difference from Tillerson’s public remarks saying the attack “clearly came from Russia” and would “certainly trigger a response.”

Tillerson wasn’t always willing to point a finger at Russia; after all, he was the man who received the Order of Friendship award from Russia in 2013. He’s the former Exxon CEO that helped sign a historic oil deal with Russian oil company Rosneft. He was the obvious choice as Secretary of State for a president who wanted to secretly remove all Russian sanctions and develop a warmer relationship with Vladimir Putin than our European allies.

That last point is critical given the language UK Prime Minister Theresa May used in describing the nerve agent attack.


Photo: BBC

“It is now clear that Mr. Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia,” UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced to lawmakers yesterday.

She added, “”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.”

Giving Russia until tomorrow to respond to their accusation, May said, “This attempted murder using a weapons-grade nerve agent in a British town was not just a crime against the Skripals.” She added, “It was an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom, putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk.”

The fact that she characterized the use of a nerve agent targeting an ex-spy and his daughter as “an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom” is crucial as it means the attack could be considered an attack on the UK itself – something that could involve NATO should the situation escalate.

Should Russia either fail to respond or should they brush off the accusation, May said the nerve agent attack would constitute “an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.”

Were this a singular incident, the language being used might seem hyperbolic. This incident is just the latest in a long lie of attacks on the UK though. Vox noted:

The attack on Skripal isn’t an isolated incident. Russia has a longstanding campaign to identify and kill Russian dissidents living in the UK.

US intelligence links at least 14 deaths in the UK to Russia, including outspoken oligarchs and journalists. “We know the Russians have an active program of killing people in the UK that they don’t like,” British intelligence officer told Steven Hall, a former CIA official focused on Russia, according to BuzzFeed News.

The Skripal case has already drawn comparisons to one of those murders: that of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy and defector to the UK. In 2006, two Russian agents put polonium-210 — a highly radioactive chemical — in Litvinenko’s tea at a London hotel bar. It took weeks for Litvinenko to die, and he blamed Putin for orchestrating the attack.

One of the assortment of responses being discussed is use of NATO to combat further Russian aggression. As he has already openly criticized NATO in the past, it’s unclear if Trump would meet its obligations to assist a fellow NATO member being attacked in this instance.

He actually had to be goaded into agreeing to NATO charter’s Article 5 several weeks after refusing to do so during a speech at NATO headquarters least year.

If faced with the prospect of having Article 5 invoked by the UK, would Trump live up to his promise? This is pertinent in light of the fact that he’s still refusing – to this day – to enforce Russian sanctions handed down Congress.

The prospect of having to punish Russia may have been at the top of Tillerson’s mind as he made remarks aligning more with May than Trump in laying blame for the attack.


Above all else, Trump values loyalty in his staff and cabinet. The nation has seen this repeatedly across several firings and threatened firings from James Comey to Rod Rosenstein. Tillerson’s departure from Trump’s pro-Russia stance breaks with that loyalty, so it should be no surprise he took to Twitter to fire him without telling anyone.

CNN pointed this out today too noting:

Tillerson was far too independent, far too off the reservation for Trump. Even when defending Tillerson, Trump’s insecurity about his secretary of state’s willingness to get in line was evident.

“The media has been speculating that I fired Rex Tillerson or that he would be leaving soon – FAKE NEWS!,” Trump tweeted in December. “He’s not leaving and while we disagree on certain subjects, (I call the final shots) we work well together and America is highly respected again!”

“I call the final shots.” I mean.

Trump’s decision on Tillerson’s replacement — CIA chief Mike Pompeo — is also telling. Pompeo, a former Kansas congressman, has been a devoted ally to and for Trump since entering the administration. As the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake smartly notes, Pompeo has been willing to carry Trump’s water since coming into office — most recently with his decision to meet with the peddler of a widely debunked conspiracy theory about the email hack of the Democratic National Committee.

“We are always on the same wavelength,” Trump said of Pompeo before jetting off to California on Tuesday morning.

Out goes someone Trump couldn’t control. In comes someone he knows he can.

Speaking to press today, Tillerson reiterated his warning about Russia. “Russia must assess carefully as to how its actions are in the best interests of the Russian people and of the world more broadly,” he said adding, “continuing on their current trajectory is likely to lead to greater isolation on their part, a situation which is not in anyone’s interest.”

The contrast with Trump’s words to the White House press corps this week is notable. Trump said, “As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”

Just as he still refuses to believe Russia engaged in attacks on the 2016 election (as he still occasionally questions the accuracy of multiple global intelligence agency reports while refusing to allow those agencies to prepare for the 2018 election cycle), he appears ready to deny Russian culpability in yet another attack despite available evidence.

The Atlantic aptly noted today:

Britain and the United States share intelligence information fully, freely, and seamlessly. It’s inconceivable that the U.S. government has not already seen all the information that Theresa May saw before she rose in the House of Commons to accuse Russia.

If the U.S. government had a serious concern about the reliability of that information, it would have expressed that concern directly and privately to the U.K. government before May spoke. But the U.S. had no such concern—that’s why the now-fired secretary of state and the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom both endorsed May’s words. When Trump raises doubts about the facts, about American agreement with its British ally, about the accuracy of the British accusation against Russia, Trump is not expressing good-faith uncertainty about imperfect information. Trump is rejecting the consensus view of the U.K. and U.S. intelligence communities about an act of Russian aggression—and, if his past behavior is any indication, preparing the way for his own determination to do nothing.

They added, “It echoes the approach he took toward Russian intervention in the U.S. election to help elect him in 2016: Feign uncertainty about what is not uncertain in order to justify inaction.”

Something is definitely rotten in the state of Denmark, and anyone in the Trump administration who dares calls attention to it – even those at the highest levels of the government – keep finding themselves without government jobs.

The 2016 election wasn’t hacked by a ‘400 pound guy’ and the UK was not attacked by an unknown agent. It’s far past time for Donald Trump to explain why he can never bring himself to call out and take action against Russian aggression.


Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.


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