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1 big thing: how Rex Tillerson alienated every ally he needs
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios
The most challenging task in Washington, these days, is finding somebody who’ll enthusiastically endorse Rex Tillerson. In just nine months, the Secretary of State has managed to alienate nearly every constituency that matters:
- The President — not only has there been tension on a personal level, but the president has undercut and clashed with Tillerson over key policy issues like Qatar, North Korea and Iran.
- Recall a few weeks ago when we reported Trump was growing increasingly frustrated with Tillerson, telling colleagues: “Rex just doesn’t get it, he’s totally establishment in his thinking.” The White House didn’t challenge our report and ultimately issued the blandest statement — from a spokesperson, not Trump — in support of Tillerson.
- The State Department rank-and-file — a typical story about their rock bottom morale, here, and about the department’s dysfunction, here.
- The White House — this goes well beyond the National Security Council. Tillerson’s Chief of Staff Margaret Peterlin has accumulated an astonishing number of enemies across the administration.
- The exchange of “Margaret stories” — including the time she reportedly vetted Condoleezza Rice’s request for a phone conversation with Tillerson — has become a frequent topic of conversation among administration officials who’ve dealt with her.
- Capitol Hill — Republicans repudiated
Tillerson’s proposed funding cuts and straitjacketed his organizational proposals. Democrats, well, just read this blistering letter from Sen. Ben Cardin, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “If the State Department were a private company, it is hard to imagine that it would be allowed to operate for the better part of a year, and maybe longer, without critical senior management.”
- Last week, the Washington Free Beacon reported there were tensions between the State Department and both the White House and key Republican senators, including Tom Cotton, over whether Israel should return $75 million in U.S. aid to comply with an Obama era agreement.
- Tillerson’s spokesman R.C. Hammond categorically denied the report: “The conversations are figments of somebody’s imagination.” I asked the White House and Capitol Hill sources close to the issue whether they’d corroborate Hammond’s statement. Radio silence.
- The media — Tillerson got off to a bad start, by breaking with precedent and refusing to allow the press corps to travel with him.
- The foreign policy establishment — Eliot Cohen, who founded an influential foreign policy network with Tillerson’s top adviser Brian Hook, told me: “I think he really will go down as one of the worst secretaries of State we’ve had.”
- There’s been a series of brutal reviews calling Tillerson everything from an “unmitigated disaster” (Tufts’ Daniel Drezner) to “quite possibly the most ineffectual secretary of state since America’s rise to global prominence in 1898.” (Max Boot, who told me the only pushback he received after it was published came from one of Tillerson’s appointees.)
So how did Tillerson get into this mess? We’ve spoken to 17 sources inside the White House, on Capitol Hill, in the State Department and among leaders of the foreign policy community. Go deeper here.
2. The darkest cloud in Trumpworld
Forget DACA or tax reform. One topic consumes the vast majority of President Trump’s inner circle: North Korea. Contrary to the president’s breezy tweet this morning, in which he refers to Kim Jong-un as “Rocket Man,” top administration officials have a dark view of how this plays out. They believe the confrontation with Pyongyang’s portly dictator will define Trump’s first term in office.
The consensus view among Trump, Mattis and McMaster, according to several officials briefed on their thinking, is that this conflict is heading towards two options, both with high risks: escalated confrontation with China and the military option.
1. Direct pressure on China:
- Administration officials believe it will take intense financial sanctions and tariffs to pressure the Chinese to do a lot more to choke off the North Korean economy. The Chinese insist in private they don’t have has much clout as the U.S. thinks. The Trump administration thinks that’s nonsense.
- Officials are waiting to see how the latest United Nations sanctions agreement affects North Korean behavior, but if the regime keeps firing rockets and testing nukes, watch for escalated tension with China. Especially over Beijing’s refusal to stop exporting oil to North Korea — a remaining pressure point that’s preoccupying Trump’s national security team.
2. The military option(s):
- If pressure on China fails and North Korea gets close to having a nuclear missile that can hit any U.S. state, top officials insist they will take action.
- Trump sounded the war drums early on because he was told this is a very live, if super dangerous and difficult, option.
- Officials have not laid out to us how this could unfold without putting millions of South Koreans and thousands of Americans at risk for deadly retribution.
Note of caution: Trump hasn’t yet concluded that he needs to take extreme measures against China. The national security team still believes there’s room to bring more pressure to bear on North Korea and the clients supporting the state before launching a full-scale economic confrontation against China.
Alaska’s Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, whose state is likely within Kim Jong-un’s missile range already, told me he believes Congress should invest more heavily in missile defense and work on legislation to approve “a preventive ground war by the U.S. on the Korean Peninsula.”
- “The model there is either the first Gulf War or the Second Gulf War,” Sullivan said in an interview Saturday. He said Trump would need this congressional authority — an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) — to abide by the Constitution but it also makes sense politically and diplomatically.
- Politically, because he believes the White House should want the American people to endorse, via their congressional representatives, such a momentous decision as a Second Korean War. An AUMF would also, Sullivan argues, “provide the administration with additional leverage as they’re trying to resolve this in a way without going to war.”
- Sullivan said he raised this issue with the administration but didn’t want to get into details of the discussions. (An official I spoke to Sunday cautioned that such an AUMF is not on the administration’s radar.)
Sullivan said missile defense is the other crucial component of the North Korea policy, “not just in the region but our own homeland.” He said the new National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — the law specifying the Defense Department’s policy priorities — that should pass either Monday or Tuesday, “has real big plus-ups for missile defense for the homeland.”
“Alaska has the element of being on the front lines but also protecting the rest of the nation,” due to its missile defense, Sullivan said. “If [Kim Jong-un] knows there’s no way he’s going to get it through, even a madman won’t do it.”
3. Sneak Peek diary
Foreign policy and national security overwhelm everything this week, at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. President Trump and his top officials will join world leaders in New York for the UN General Assembly — a gathering Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace called “the super bowl of diplomacy.” North Korea will dominate the conversations.
- Trump’s speech to the UN General Assembly, on Tuesday: National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told Wallace the president would “communicate his vision for America’s role in the world, but also what his expectations are for international bodies like the United Nations, but also of other nations … to protect the sovereignty of their citizens and respect the sovereignty of other nations.”
- Middle East peace? “Don’t expect a lot of news on that front out of the United Nations General Assembly meetings,” a senior White House official told me.
- Trump is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on Monday and Palestinian leader Abbas on Wednesday.
- The Netanyahu meeting will focus on Iran and the Abbas meeting “will help further [the president’s relationship with Abbas,” the official said. “The peace conversations are ongoing on a separate track and the peace delegation has never seen UNGA as a big moment.”
- On Capitol Hill: The House is out of session. The Senate is expected to finish the NDAA on Monday — it’s John McCain’s baby and continues tradition of being one of the few things left in Washington that’s genuinely bipartisan.
4. Health care’s Hail Mary
Burgess Everett and Josh Dawsey of Politico report this afternoon “Obamacare repeal is on the brink of coming back from the dead,” and that Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is hustling to get a new bill on the floor “before the GOP’s power to pass health care legislation through a party-line vote in the Senate expires on Sept. 30.”
- Key paragraph: “No final decision has been made, but the GOP leader has told his caucus that if the bill written by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) has the support of at least 50 of the 52 GOP senators, he will bring it to the floor, Graham and Cassidy say. That would give Republicans one more crack at repealing the Affordable Care Act, a longtime party pledge.”
The politics of the bill: Axios’ David Nather emails: “This has been building up for a while. Definitely worth keeping an eye on it, but still hard to see where they get the 50th vote. It’s not impossible that they get McCain. For everything he’s said about ‘regular order,’ he’s still friends with Lindsey Graham. But Rand Paul has been tweeting nasty stuff — it’s Obamacare Lite, etc. So unless you flip Collins or Murkowski, hard to see it happening.”
The policy: Axios’ Health Care Reporter Caitlin Owens emails: “It redistributes money pretty drastically from Medicaid expansion states to non-expansion states. It also cuts off all federal funding for premium subsidies and Medicaid expansion after 2026, which would wreak havoc.” Caitlin also notes that the bill keeps a lot of the Affordable Care Act taxes, and she wonders how conservative senators will feel about that.
Bottom line: Sure, don’t dismiss this health care push. Have it on your radar. But don’t go nuts.
5. 1 fun thing: Tucker’s tell-all
Photo: Richard Drew / AP
Jamie Weinstein, the conservative commentator and host of the excellent podcast “The Jamie Weinstein Show,” emails a few minutes before deadline to say that his interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson just went live.
The highlights, per Jamie:
- Tucker on why Trump told him he loves cable news: He believes “TV programming in some ways is a more accurate reflection of the public mood than polling.”
- On Bashar al-Assad: Tucker turned down chance to interview him because “it just wasn’t worth the criticism.”
- On Putin: “I also had an opportunity to interview Vladimir Putin recently, which I turned down as well, for similar reasons.”
- Things got bad in the U.S. “when the left stopped pushing back against the excesses of capitalism.”
- On the Russia scandal: “You should never accept, uncritically, imprecise conclusions of the … ‘intel community’.”
- On Matt Drudge: “Obviously he’s a genius… He’s a pure instinct player.”
- On Howard Stern: “Of course” Tucker would do his show… “I think he is a wonderful interviewer.”