President Donald Trump has disrupted Capitol Hill once again.
Trump’s sudden firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Tuesday morning stunned lawmakers in both parties, even those who thought they had gotten used to the president’s frenetic style. There was no heads-up from the White House that Tillerson’s ouster was coming. Senior Republicans thought Trump and Tillerson had achieved a decent working relationship in recent months, although there was clearly no love for the former Exxon CEO coming from the Oval Office.
It’s the latest reminder that Trump has his own plans, and the rest of the party is just going to have to deal with it, no matter how awkward the timing.
GOP congressional leaders are focused on finishing work on a massive spending bill to keep the government running for the rest of the fiscal year and then hope to turn to the battle for control of Congress. But the looming confirmation process for his new nominees ensures that senators will instead spend weeks publicly debating Trump’s policies on Russia, Iran and North Korea, as well as reliving previous fights over terror detainees and allegations of torture by the CIA.
"It adds to our workload, that's for sure," said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). "I don't view it as a problem. It's just business that we have to take care of."
Cornyn and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are already pushing for a "quick confirmation" of CIA Director Mike Pompeo as Tillerson's replacement. Trump has tapped Gina Haspel, the deputy CIA director, to succeed Pompeo. Haspel would be the first woman to hold that post, although her role in a hugely controversial CIA interrogation program will be a key part of an upcoming confirmation hearing.
The spectacle of Tillerson being fired via Twitter — Tillerson himself said he didn't speak to Trump until three hours after the president tweeted about it — was too much for many Democrats, who view Trump's Washington as an unending series of scandals, missteps and controversies with no cohesive rhyme or rhythm. If there is a method to Trump's madness, Democrats don't see it.
“President Trump has demonstrated yet again that he is the Commander-in-Chaos,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), who as the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will play a key role in the confirmation hearings of CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson.
Menendez — recently acquitted on federal bribery charges and now running hard for reelection — was noncommittal on whether he would oppose Pompeo’s confirmation as the 70th secretary of State. Menendez voted against Pompeo for CIA director last year. Overall, 31 Democrats and one Republican, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, opposed Pompeo’s ascension to head of the CIA.
“The question is that being the CIA director is one skill set, while being secretary of State is another,” Menendez said.
Liberal Democrats and progressive groups are already teeing off on Pompeo’s selection, saying he has not done enough to highlight Russian interference in the 2016 election, among his other shortcomings.
Although Democrats will have a hard time derailing Pompeo’s bid, given his lack of opposition from a GOP that knows him well from his years in the House, he’s likely to face a far more partisan confirmation vote than Tillerson.
“If he’s being hired simply to more efficiently destroy the State Department, I think it would hard to get Democratic votes,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told reporters.
Yet some red state Democrats, especially those up for reelection this November, signaled they are open to backing Pompeo’s nomination. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) noted that he voted for Pompeo for CIA director and has had good interactions with him as an Intelligence Committee member.
“He’s been straightforward,” Manchin said. “He comes in there, he’s well-received, and he’s very candid.”
Haspel is also coming under intense criticism from Democrats over her role in overseeing the agency’s interrogation program for terror detainees, including allegedly destroying videotapes of the interrogations of two suspects.
“Ms. Haspel's background makes her unsuitable to serve as CIA director,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a statement. “Her nomination must include total transparency about this background, which I called for more than a year ago when she was appointed deputy director. If Ms. Haspel seeks to serve at the highest levels of U.S. intelligence, the government can no longer cover up disturbing facts from her past.”
However, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who oversaw an Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s interrogation program, said she has not ruled out voting for Haspel.
“I think it’s something that can’t be forgotten. I’m certainly not going to forget it, and I won’t let any [CIA] director forget it,” Feinstein said. “Right now, I’m waiting for the hearings.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has had his own love-hate relationship with Trump, said he was given no warning on Tillerson’s firing, despite the fact that he talked to the president on Friday.
“I found out about it the way I find out about a lot of things — from you all,” Corker told reporters. “I had felt to a degree there had been a reprieve of some kind [in the Trump-Tillerson relationship], since about the first of December, relative to how they were working together… This president is very entrepreneurial the way he goes about things… It’s understandable there would be differences there.”
Tillerson was even supposed to be appearing before the Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday to discuss the State Department's fiscal 2019 budget request.
Corker, who was close to Tillerson, didn’t say whether he’d support Pompeo, although it would be astonishing if Senate Republicans don't back his nomination.
"I don't know Pompeo very well. I know his background, our lanes have just not crossed," Corker added. "He's gonna come over later this week and we'll sit down and talk some."
Tillerson may not have been loved by Trump, who could never seem to get used to his style, but Tillerson definitely had his supporters up on Capitol Hill. Tillerson liked process, and that’s something lawmakers understand at a deep level.
"I like Rex Tillerson. I think he did a very good job," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). "But it was clear the chemistry wasn't there with the president. And I don't know that using the word fired is right. I think it's a mutual decision."