Elliott Abrams On Tillerson's Departure

Mar 13, 2018
Originally published on March 13, 2018 10:24 am
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


And let's talk about this breaking news with Elliott Abrams. He's a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is - was former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's choice to be No. 2 at the State Department, though that appointment was blocked by President Trump. Abrams is a longtime diplomat who served Presidents Ronald Reagan, also President George W. Bush.

Welcome back to the program.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Hi. Good morning.

GREENE: So what led to this moment?

ABRAMS: You know, I'm surprised about the timing. I think what led to it is that Secretary Tillerson never really established a close relationship with the president. If you think of George Shultz and Ronald Reagan, James Baker and George H.W. Bush, Condi Rice and George W. Bush, that's the kind of relationship you want. You want the secretary of state to be the top foreign policy adviser, and they never really established that kind of relationship. And that's why everybody thought that Secretary Tillerson - or most people thought - would leave at the end of the year or maybe January 20 - you know, one-year anniversary. And then it happens in the middle of March - not quite the ides of March, but close.

GREENE: So it's a matter of trust, you're saying. I mean, it's - we have these reports, which my colleague Tamara Keith just talked about, of Tillerson once using the term moron to describe the president. What - is - even though he never acknowledged that, do you - you know Tillerson fairly well. Is that a sign of the level of respect he had for this president?

ABRAMS: Well, I don't know him that well. I would say, though, that they were never close in the way, for example, that it seems that Mike Pompeo and the president have been over the course of the year. They didn't really know each other for last year either, but they've really - Pompeo's managed to establish this relationship with the president. And, I mean, that's good news that there will be a secretary of state who really is close. That's very important for the State Department, for State Department morale, for fulfilling its functions.

GREENE: Does this change mean that we are going to see President Trump's foreign policy change? Are we going to see a real impact in terms of his foreign policy, given this moment?

ABRAMS: It's possible. Rumor is that Pompeo was harder-line on some things, closer to the president's tougher line, for example, on Iran and the JCPOA, whereas Secretary Tillerson was - took a more traditional, you might say, establishment view, a more Department of State view.

GREENE: You're talking about Iran and the nuclear agreement.

ABRAMS: Yes. And if that - if those rumors are true, then it's possible that you'll see a change in foreign policy.

GREENE: You think it - we could be more likely to see the nuclear deal scrapped altogether with a new secretary of state.

ABRAMS: Well, it's complicated because of the North Korean negotiation - or North Korean meeting, anyway - that's coming. But I'd say if the question is, is it more or less likely to scrap the nuclear deal with Pompeo as with secretary of state? - I would think it's more likely.

GREENE: What do you see as Rex Tillerson's legacy? I know it was only, you know, a little more than a year, but how would you define what he accomplished?

ABRAMS: Well, on the upside, he served competently as secretary representing the country around the world with an administration that was brand-new and a president who had never held public office before. On the downside, the State Department's not in good shape. Everyone will tell you, and I think correctly, that morale in the State Department is not good. And there are still - we're - what is it? - 16 months from the presidential election, there is still a lot of vacancies over at the department. And I think the secretary was not ever able to create out of the State Department a formidable machine for American foreign policy.

GREENE: Do you see Mike Pompeo as being better skilled at creating a department that's better organized and where there might be better morale?

ABRAMS: Well, his record at CIA is better. That is, he'd never run a big organization like this either. He had been a congressman. But as I see it, morale at CIA is better. He didn't have to deal with personnel problems because there - he didn't really have to bring anybody in. But morale is very good. And at the State Department, it isn't. If that's a sign of his ability as a manager, as a leader, then that's a very positive sign for the people at the Department of State.

GREENE: Elliott Abrams, thanks so much for joining us this morning. We really appreciate your time.

ABRAMS: My pleasure. Bye.

GREENE: He is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. And just to recap the news now - it is breaking news. President Trump announced on Twitter that Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, will become the secretary of state. It's his choice for secretary of state. And Rex Tillerson's tenure at the State Department as the nation's top diplomat is over. We'll be covering this news throughout the day.