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Rex Tillerson and the shambles of Trump’s ‘family and friends’ foreign policy

To fire one adviser is a misfortune. To fire two appears careless. To fire yet another through Twitter can really only be described as an omnishambles.

Let’s be clear. As Donald Trump uses a tweet to dismiss secretary of state Rex Tillerson, the conduct of US foreign policy is at its most chaotic point since 1945. Even in the dying months of the Nixon administration, with Henry Kissinger trying to prop up an often-drunk and sometimes-drugged president, there was a semblance of competence and order.

In 2018, we have a chief executive who relies on Fox TV and was called a “f****** moron” by the secretary of state he has now removed. The State Department is gutted: seven of nine top posts are now vacant even after current CIA Director Mike Pompeo is confirmed to replace Tillerson. Hundreds of other positions remain unfilled or have been slashed, and a budget cut of more than 30% looms on the immediate horizon. In its place, foreign policy is driven on an ad hoc basis by the whims of Trump and the interests – political and financial – of family and friends: son-in-law Jared Kushner, hard-right adviser Stephen Miller, yes-man Pompeo, billonaire commerce secretary Wilbur Ross.

No crossing the Trump ego…or the family

Tillerson’s termination was both long-planned and sudden. The main driver for his departure is a combination of a president who needs to be in the spotlight and a son-in-law who wants to share that light as chief foreign policy adviser.

Trump never forgot the “f****** moron” remark – reportedly made during a meeting of top security advisers. He bristled whenever Tillerson made a comment which grabbed media attention, such as when he revealed last December that the US was ready to talk to North Korea.

In the hours before he was fired, Tillerson had again taken over from Trump. This time he declared that the US would stand in alliance with the UK over Russia’s suspected attack on former spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter Julia on English soil. The president had himself been notably quiet on the topic and certainly did not offer his overt support to the UK.

Trump’s inner circle is now largely made up of microphones pretending to be people. EPA

The Kushner faction saw Tillerson as a major obstacle, too. Trump’s son-in-law might be the envoy to the Middle East, declaring that he will bring peace to the region. He might be the key contact for Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Mohammad Bin Salman. He might have Russian links – some of which involve his business. He might see himself as the mover-and-shaker in discussions with China, Israel, the UAE, and Mexico (all of whom identified Kushner’s eagerness and financial interests as vulnerabilities which can be exploited). But as long as Tillerson was in post, Trump’s wannabe Kissinger would always play second fiddle.

So last December, Kushner’s group started telling the media that the secretary of state was out and would be replaced by Pompeo by the start of 2018. They could not quite get Trump to pull the trigger then, but the pressure was sustained with the help of allies in the media, who cast doubt on Tillerson’s loyalty to Trump. There was a foreign element, too – both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with ties to Kushner, railed about Tillerson because he called for moderation in their blockade of Qatar. His position was further weakened because of staff demoralised by department cuts.

The Kushner camp’s chance came when Tillerson left for Africa while Trump fumed over the Russia investigation. With the president desperate for credit for his I’m-meeting-Kim manoeuvre – and possibly seeing Tillerson as casting shade on it – the pressure paid off.

McMaster next to go?

Last summer, after months of White House turmoil and amid the expanding Russia inquiry, the story was that the military figures in the administration would maintain a semblance of order over foreign policy. General Jim Mattis was the bulwark as defense secretary since Trump took office. General H R McMaster had replaced Michael Flynn (forced out because of his Russia links) as national security adviser. General John Kelly became chief of staff.

But Kelly, far from containing Trump, has increasingly provided cover for the president’s whims. And with Tillerson out of the way, McMaster could be vulnerable.

The Kushner faction are no fans of the national security adviser, and he is also a villain for the hard right which has had so much influence with Trump. An immediate threat was removed when White House chief strategist and hard-right icon Bannon was dismissed last August, but paradoxically the firing only fed the determination of Bannon’s allies – using outlets such as Breitbart and Fox – to oust the general.

A #McMasterOut campaign, fed on social media not only by domestic opponents but by Russian-linked accounts, came up short in the autumn. But already, as Trump hinted at more dismissals on Tuesday with his “I’m close to getting the Cabinet I want”, McMaster’s name is at the top of the list for Downfall of the Day.

Tillerson’s firing means that almost half of the White House staff from January 2017 are gone. The chief economic advisor, Gary Cohn, was the most recent to give up, after the protectionists surrounding the president – such as Wilbur Ross – got their tariffs on steel and aluminium. Even Trump’s close confidante, communications director Hope Hicks, has jumped.

As special counsel Robert Mueller closes in on Trump, and as foreign affairs are just too complicated to understand let alone control, the president has an ever-decreasing inner circle to give him comfort and the affirmation that he is #Winning.

Still, there is always Jared and daughter Ivanka. Stephen Miller, the scourge of immigrants and the author of Trumpian insults like “Little Rocket Man”, holds forth. Pompeo is brought in as a defender of the camp. That won’t reassure American allies, from Canada to South Korea to Europe. But Donald Trump’s priority is not American allies. It is not even the presidency, at least in the orderly and effective manner in which it is supposed to operate.

Donald Trump’s priority is Donald Trump. All else – including a US foreign policy for a modicum of stability – falls before this.

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