There are three separate scoops here, only one of which is a real surprise. Scoop one: Rex Tillerson is on his way out soon. No surprise there, as he’s been pilloried in diplomatic circles for all sorts of reasons, most recently for destroying morale at State through downsizing. Reports have trickled out sporadically over the past six months during the endless “Rexit” death watch that Tillerson was aiming to serve a full year before packing it in and saying “to hell with this.” Well, if he lasts a few more weeks, as the NYT suggests here, he’ll be close to that mark. He was nominated as Secretary of State last December and confirmed at the very beginning of February. If he quits in January, he’ll have stuck it out about as long as he intended to.
Scoop two: Mike Pompeo, currently the head of the CIA, is in line to succeed him. No surprise there either despite the hype that Nikki Haley was set to move up to Tillerson’s chair when he quit. I think that was true during the first six months of Trump’s administration but there have been numerous stories lately about Pompeo moving up the depth chart. Trump likes him, he knows how to talk to POTUS without irritating him, and he’s been a loyal soldier, going so far as to meet with a conspiracy theorist about the Russia campaign hacking because Trump saw him on “Fox & Friends” or whatever. He was confirmed as CIA chief with 66 votes in the Senate too so confirmation as Secretary of State won’t be a problem. In fact, because he’s already been confirmed for a different cabinet position, I believe Trump could appoint him acting Secretary of State while he’s awaiting formal confirmation by the Senate.
It’s the third scoop that’s the surprise.
The White House has developed a plan to force out Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, whose relationship with President Trump has been strained, and replace him with Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director, within the next several weeks, senior administration officials said on Thursday.
Mr. Pompeo would be replaced at the C.I.A. by Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas who has been a key ally of the president on national security matters, according to the White House plan. Mr. Cotton has signaled that he would accept the job if offered, said the officials, who insisted on anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations before decisions are announced…
The ouster of Mr. Tillerson would end a turbulent reign at the State Department for the former Exxon Mobile chief executive, who has been largely marginalized over the last year. Mr. Trump and Mr. Tillerson have been at odds over a host of major issues, including the Iran nuclear deal, the confrontation with North Korea and a clash between Arab allies. The secretary was reported to have privately called Mr. Trump a “moron” and the president publicly criticized Mr. Tillerson for “wasting his time” with a diplomatic outreach to North Korea.
W-w-wut? In the midst of the Roy Moore debacle, with Moore clinging to a fragile lead in what should have been a gimme hold for the GOP, Trump wants to create another needless Republican Senate vacancy? If Doug Jones comes back to win, Cotton’s open seat would give Democrats a shot at a 50/50 split in the Senate with Dean Heller’s or Jeff Flake’s seat capable of handing them an outright majority in 2019 if they can pick one of those up (and hold their own vulnerable seats in the midterms, of course). The wrinkle is that, unlike Jeff Sessions’s seat in Alabama, Cotton’s wouldn’t be subject to a special election right away. Arkansas’s Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, would fill it with an appointment — but only until next November. Arguably that’s a worse scenario for the GOP than an immediate special election would be, as it would put the seat up for grabs in the middle of what increasingly looks to be a blue wave in the midterms. McConnell and the NRSC are going to be royally pissed at Trump if he forces them to defend another seat unnecessarily in what’s shaping up as a hostile political climate.
I don’t understand what Cotton gets out of it either. He obviously has national ambitions, having visited Iowa this past May. Presumably he thinks, as Nikki Haley obviously does, that a little natsec and/or foreign policy executive experience will look good on a presidential resume in 2024. But Cotton already has some cred on that point: He’s a veteran. And serving at CIA will take him largely out of the public eye, potentially for years. Granted, that didn’t stop Bush 41 from eventually becoming president but Bush operated in an age when media exposure was less important. If Cotton wants to inherit Trump’s base, he’s probably better off staying in the Senate and pounding the table regularly about immigration and jobs than he is working in intelligence. Especially since the CIA’s destined sporadically to produce intel that upsets Trump for political reasons, a la Russiagate, leading POTUS to lash out. Cotton could end up being viewed by Trumpers as a face of the “deep state.” Not a good look for a populist candidate.
Who’s going to replace him in the Senate in 2018? Hutchinson will come under heavy pressure from the White House to appoint someone who (a) stands a good chance of being able to defend the seat in next fall’s election and (b) is sufficiently acceptable to populists that he or she won’t need to worry about a Bannon-backed primary challenge in the spring. Some on Twitter are tossing out the names of various Huckabees, whether Mike or Sarah, although I’m not sure offhand if either is currently a resident of Arkansas. They’d probably satisfy both of those requirements, though. Imagine a Senate in which both Mike Huckabee and Roy Moore (and Mitt Romney!) hold seats. As for the Democrats, the temptation is to name a Clinton given their Arkansas pedigree but there’s no reason to think someone with Clinton baggage could win there. Arkansas 2017 isn’t Arkansas 1978. A word to the wise: Try to find a Dem who *isn’t* an abortion absolutist like Doug Jones, however much that might make national progressives pucker. In an age when there’s always a reason to find the other party’s nominee totally unacceptable, it helps not to nominate someone who has a really obvious reason why they’re totally unacceptable.