GOP senators see Tillerson ouster as the new normal

GOP senators see Tillerson ouster as the new normal
© Greg Nash

Republican senators on Tuesday said they were not surprised by President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want to use 'adversary' to describe Russia Comey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Roby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism MORE’s abrupt firing of Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonUS steps up its game in Africa, a continent open for business Matt Drudge shares mock ‘Survivor’ cover suggesting more White House officials will leave this summer 'Daily Show' trolls Trump over Pruitt's resignation MORE, with some acknowledging they’ve grown numb to the president’s unorthodox style of governing.

While senators didn’t receive advance notice of Tillerson’s firing, several said it had been clear for some time that he was on the outs with the president.

“People are getting used to this being what life is like under President Trump,” said a GOP senator, who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations with colleagues.

The lawmaker said it would be better if there was more stability within the administration but there was little that could be done to change Trump’s management style.

“This has become the norm,” the source added, expressing regret over the departure of Tillerson and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn. “Change has been in the air now for 14 months.”

Vice President Pence didn’t offer an explanation for why Trump fired his secretary of State when he spoke to senators at a lunch meeting Tuesday, according to lawmakers who attended.

He ignored a shouted question from a Fox News reporter about whether the White House is in “chaos” as he walked into the lunch meeting, where he touted the credentials of CIA Director Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoSenate Dems press for info on any deals from Trump-Putin meeting Pence, Pompeo urged Trump to clarify Russia remarks: report Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash MORE, whom Trump has nominated to replace Tillerson.  

Lawmakers suspect that Trump wanted to have a new foreign policy team in place ahead of talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“I knew they were talking about making the change, but I didn’t know it was coming this soon. I think a lot of it was driven by the North Korea negotiations, wanting to have the team he’s most comfortable with,” said Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamKelly lobbied Republicans to rebuke Trump after Putin press conference: report Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash Trump stuns the world at Putin summit MORE (R-S.C.).

Many GOP senators are happy that Trump nominated Pompeo, a former House Republican lawmaker, to take the reins of the State Department. But several senators, including senior members of the Foreign Relations Committee, thought Tillerson was doing a good job and liked his process-oriented management style.

“I know him very, very well and talk with him often,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerSenate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash Trump seeks to quell Russia furor MORE (R-Tenn.) said of his relationship with Tillerson.

Corker said he didn’t receive any heads-up on Tillerson’s firing, which Trump announced on Twitter on Tuesday morning, but added that he wasn’t that surprised, given the clashing styles of the president and top diplomat.

“You’ve got a very entrepreneurial president and you’ve got a secretary of State who is more of a process person and puts things into place. It just hasn’t been a perfect relationship,” Corker added. “While I was unaware of it, and I spoke to both of them last week, I wasn’t surprised.”

The shakeup at the State Department and the CIA throws a wrench into the Senate schedule.

The Senate has one more week of work and then a two-week recess, which means Pompeo and Gina Haspel, Trump’s nominee to replace Pompeo as CIA director, are unlikely to be confirmed until the spring.

Haspel, the CIA’s deputy director, could face opposition from members of both parties because she ran a CIA “black site” prison during the George W. Bush administration.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainPence, Pompeo urged Trump to clarify Russia remarks: report GOP lawmaker renews call for Trump to release tax returns after Putin summit House conservatives criticize media, not Trump, for Putin furor MORE (R-Ariz.) warned in a statement that Haspel would have to explain her record on the torture of suspected terrorists.

“Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program during the confirmation process,” he said.

The GOP leadership expressed some frustration Tuesday that they would have to find more time on the schedule for a grinding confirmation fight when they’re trying to find floor time for a sex-trafficking bill, the omnibus spending package and other priorities.

“I’d rather be working on legislation,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash GOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE The real reason Scott Pruitt is gone: Putting a key voting bloc at risk MORE (S.D.).

The Senate confirmed Tillerson to head the State Department just over a year ago by a vote of 56-43. The chamber confirmed Pompeo as CIA director in January 2017.

Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynSenate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash McConnell: Russians are not our friends Russians' indictment casts shadow ahead of Trump-Putin summit MORE (Texas) and Thune, the second- and third-ranking members of the Senate leadership, respectively, said they did not receive any advance warning from the White House about Tillerson’s ouster.

Only Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonBipartisan group introduces retirement savings legislation in Senate Overnight Defense: Fallout from tense NATO summit | Senators push to block ZTE deal in defense bill | Blackwater founder makes new pitch for mercenaries to run Afghan war Hillicon Valley: DOJ appeals AT&T-Time Warner ruling | FBI agent testifies in heated hearing | Uproar after FCC changes rules on consumer complaints | Broadcom makes bid for another US company | Facebook under fire over conspiracy sites MORE (R-Ark.), who is close to Pompeo, said he had “indications” that there would be an imminent change at State. Previous reports about the White House moving Pompeo to State had floated Cotton as a possible replacement at the CIA.

Democrats on Tuesday criticized the high rate of turnover at senior administration officials as a sign of disorder and instability.

Other high-profile departures from the White House include Cohn, communications director Hope HicksHope Charlotte Hicks'Daily Show' trolls Trump over Pruitt's resignation Ex-Fox News exec Bill Shine to join White House Ex-Trump aide pushes for Hope Hicks as chief of staff: Trump will 'listen to women more than men’ MORE, staff secretary Rob Porter, chief of staff Reince PriebusReinhold (Reince) Richard PriebusWisconsin GOP Senate candidate rips his own parents for donations to Dems Wisconsin GOP Senate hopeful hit by ad highlighting Democratic past Matt Drudge shares mock ‘Survivor’ cover suggesting more White House officials will leave this summer MORE, senior political adviser Stephen Bannon, presidential personal assistant John McEntee and communications aide Josh Raffel.

“What President Trump did and the way he did it once again indicates the chaos in this administration,” Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerThis week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation Red-state Dem tells Schumer to 'kiss my you know what' on Supreme Court vote Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick MORE (N.Y.) told reporters. “Their inability to have a center, the inability to have a consistent policy … it’s creating huge problems.”

Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSenate Dems press for info on any deals from Trump-Putin meeting Too many Americans go to prison but Congress can fix this problem This week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation MORE (Ill.) added, “The departure of major players from this administration has been historic and worrisome.”

Durbin said he had “questions” about Haspel’s record on so-called enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding.

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezCNN anchors break into laughter over comedian's alleged prank call to Trump Comedian claims he tricked Trump while impersonating Dem senator Schumer: Obama 'very amenable' to helping Senate Dems in midterms MORE (D-N.J.), a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he looks forward to “a full vetting of Director Pompeo.”

“They are a different set of skills. Being CIA director [requires] one set of skills. Being secretary of State requires diplomatic skills,” Menendez added.

Jordain Carney contributed.