The firing of Rex Tillerson and the appointment of former CIA chief Mike Pompeo to the position of Secretary of State is hugely significant in a number of ways. It demonstrates that the White House is now in a permanent state of turmoil and that Trump likes it that way.
The US version of the TV show “The Apprentice” gratified Trump by making him look decisive and powerful in using the words “You’re fired!”. Like one of Pavlov’s dogs, Trump has come to associate firing people with a surge of adrenalin.
If the Trump White House were merely a TV show like “The West Wing”, the scriptwriters would be in deep trouble because the series would be panned as lacking all credibility. But, alas, we truly have arrived at a point where, to coin an old phrase, the truth is now stranger than fiction. Trump’s presidency is simply less believable than Bartlett’s.
Pompeo’s appointment also decapitates the US foreign service as a diplomatic arm of US government. Pompeo took a leading role in overseeing and later defending the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other tortures at clandestine detention centres across the globe. Conventional diplomacy is dead; gunboat diplomacy and the dark arts have been enthroned in its place.
Now we hear suggestions that Trump’s National Security Advisor, General McMaster, and Veterans Administration Secretary Shulkin, and even his Chief of Staff, Gen John Kelly, are also out of favour and may be shown the door. Trump’s monstrous ego is growing – not shrinking.
In a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to prevent a Republican defeat in a special election the safest of safe Republican heartlands in Pennsylvania, Trump travelled to Pittsburgh last week and delivered an hour-long unscripted rant to baying supporters. I recommend all readers of this column to google the full version and to watch it carefully. It will reward you hugely for your time and endurance. For a melange of bombast, vainglory, self-obsession, random thoughts, and pathos, the Pittsburgh rant has everything.
As I have written here, Trump is about to face his moment of truth as regards Kim Jong Un. The much-hyped up-coming summit will, I think consist of delivering one clear, private message from Trump to Kim – “If you do not immediately commit to de-nuclearising North Korea, starting now, I will take you out militarily in short order. The Pentagon has done all the planning. Your regime will cease to exist. If, however, you agree to scrap your missiles and nuclear program, your regime will be allowed to survive. It’s your choice”.
He as much as said so in Pittsburgh. He talked openly there of making Kim an “offer he can’t refuse” echoing the famous Mario Puzo line. That is the “deal” Trump will offer; that is the “deal” he intends to make. Trump will not wait for sanctions to squeeze Kim to a slow political death. He can’t wait for that to happen. He believes that he needs this “deal” to get re-elected in 2020
That scenario explains why Tillerson is gone. It also explains why the White House is crawling with generals. Pompeo is now tasked with creating the conditions globally for the making of Trump’s great deal. That is a task he will relish.
Watching the White House has truly become a white-knuckle ride.
Into that house strode Leo Varadkar on his St Patrick’s Day visit to the White House - bearing “shamrocks” as Trump put it. Leo had to tread very carefully in relation to a Trump visit to Ireland. He could not possibly withdraw Enda Kenny’s previous invitation. When you think of it, to do so would be gratuitously insulting to the man with whom Ireland has to do important business for the next two years at least. Leo had gone on the record, as Minister, doubting the wisdom of such an invitation at the time of Trump’s candidacy. He had to tip-toe through a mine-field of protocol and politics.
I don’t buy the story that Leo attempted to twist the arms of the planning officers in Clare County Council to refuse planning permission for a small wind-farm two km away from the Doonbeg resort. The risk of such an attempt becoming public knowledge would have been too great. I have however no doubt that Trump would have wished him to do so. I accept that Leo probably asked one of his officials to find out where the planning application was at – so that he could tell Trump if asked, showing that he did not just ignore his call.
So the Doonbeg windmills row is much akin to the problems that Cervantes’ Don Quixote had with the windmills of La Mancha – just delusional farce.
In the real world, Leo and his government face much more serious problems. The Beast from the East has left Simon Harris with the political consequences of a delayed winter season in the hospital system. Record trolley numbers are exactly what he does not need in the run-up to a referendum where he is also the lead minister. Letters he sent to voters in Wicklow on the subject of abortion have begun to surface and have the capacity to embarrass him in that role. The matter needs leadership from the top.
The Repeal amendment needs the Government’s political attention now. Defeat for the amendment would, as I pointed out here some weeks ago, be very bad news for the Government, the Taoiseach and the country. Hand-cuffing repeal to the Oireachtas Committee’s report may simply not be sustainable. De-coupling repeal from that report may be necessary. If time and political space is needed to ensure the passage of the repeal proposal, the Government should have the courage to create such time and space.
Anecdotal evidence or instinct is fallible and unreliable. Very intensive and detailed surveying of the public mood on linking repeal to the committee’s proposal should be carried out now. No false comfort should be drawn from the Marriage Equality referendum; the issues and attitudes are very different. The level and articulation of opposition is very different at this point.
If opinion polls taken before a referendum were reliable, we would have no Seanad. Referendum campaigns have a dynamic of their own as the referenda on the Oireachtas Committee powers and the Seanad proved. The degree of conviction or doubt on the issue will finally determine which side’s supporters actually turn out.
That is where political wisdom, leadership, credible advocacy, and courage must come in as far as the Repeal side is concerned. Is it available? Are we on our own white-knuckle ride?