The specific timing of the move—following the secretary of state’s split from the president to condemn a Russian attack in the U.K.—raises questions about its motive.
The White House’s account of the Tillerson firing collapsed within minutes.
Within the hour, the State Department issued a statement insisting that Tillerson “had every intention of remaining” and “did not speak to the President this morning and is unaware of the reason.” CNN reported that Tillerson had received a call from White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on Friday night indicating that he would be replaced that did not specify timing; a senior White House official told the network that it was Trump himself who had suddenly decided to pull the trigger on Tuesday morning. Tillerson learned of his actual firing the same way everybody else did: By reading about it on Twitter shortly after 8:44 a.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, March 13.
A lot turns on that timing. On March 12, Tillerson had backed the British government’s accusation that Russia was culpable for a nerve-agent attack on United Kingdom soil. If Tillerson had been fired March 9, then his words of support for Britain could not explain his firing three days before. But if the White House was lying about the timing, it could be lying about the motive.
And since it now seems all but certain that the White House was lying about the timing, it looks more probable that it was lying about the motive too.
That suspicion was accelerated by the president’s words to the White House press corps before stepping aboard Marine One:
“As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”
That is not support for Britain. It is the direct opposite.
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.
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.
The U.S.-U.K. response to the Russian nerve gas attack should have been coordinated in advance. It was not. The U.S. statement of support for Britain should have arrived on the day that the prime minister delivered her accusation. It did not. The retaliation—if any—should also already be agreed upon. It plainly has not been.
The United Kingdom does not find itself deprived of U.S. support because of some British mistake or rush to judgment. Most of the U.S. government shares the British assessment of what happened—as attested by Tillerson’s statement in support of Britain, which would have relied on U.S. intelligence agency reports. Only Trump stands apart, vetoing any condemnation of Russia and perhaps punishing his secretary of state for breaking ranks on the president’s no-criticizing-Putin policy.
On June 4, 2017, Trump took to Twitter to chide British officials for taking too long to blame a terror attack on Muslim extremists.
We must stop being politically correct and get down to the business of security for our people. If we don't get smart it will only get worse— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 4, 2017
This time, Britain did not hesitate. It has named the assassins. And now it is Trump who is squeamish.
On March 10, 2018, the president’s son tweeted:
I’m so glad to wake up in a country where we finally have a president who cares more about America than he does about our enemies feelings. Very refreshing!!! #maga— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) March 10, 2018
But apparently some enemies’ feelings command more sensitivity than others.
Yesterday, the Republicans on the House intelligence committee announced that they had concluded the investigation of the Russian interference—and would soon publish a report acquitting Trump of collusion. Bad luck for them to release the report on the very day that Trump again demonstrated that something is very, very wrong in the Trump-Russia relationship. It’s possible to imagine innocent explanations. And it’s easy to list the plausible explanations. Ominously for the western alliance and the security of the United States, those two sets no longer overlap at all.