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 TrumpBill Kristol resurfaces video of Pence calling Obama executive action on immigration a 'profound mistake' ACLU says planned national emergency declaration is 'clear abuse of presidential power' O'Rourke says he'd 'absolutely' take down border wall near El Paso if he could MORE’s abrupt firing of Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonTrump administration’s top European diplomat to resign in February Pompeo planning to meet with Pat Roberts amid 2020 Senate speculation Trump concealed details of meetings with Putin from senior officials: report 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.

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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 PompeoOvernight Defense: Trump to sign funding deal, declare national emergency | Shanahan says allies will be consulted on Afghanistan | Dem demands Khashoggi documents Senate confirms Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general Top Dem demands State Department documents on Khashoggi killing 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 GrahamGraham seeks new Rosenstein testimony after explosive McCabe interview Senate confirms Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general Graham demands testimony from former FBI acting Director McCabe 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 CorkerSasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger RNC votes to give Trump 'undivided support' ahead of 2020 Sen. Risch has unique chance to guide Trump on foreign policy 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 McCainMark Kelly's campaign raises over M in days after launching Senate bid The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Lawmakers wait for Trump's next move on border deal Mark Kelly launches Senate bid in Arizona 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 ThuneWill Trump sign the border deal? Here's what we know Key GOP senator pitches Trump: Funding deal a 'down payment' on wall Hillicon Valley: House panel takes on election security | DOJ watchdog eyes employee texts | Senate Dems urge regulators to block T-Mobile, Sprint deal | 'Romance scams' cost victims 3M in 2018 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 CornynGOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration On The Money: Trump to sign border deal, declare emergency to build wall | Senate passes funding bill, House to follow | Dems promise challenge to emergency declaration Trump to sign border deal, declare national emergency 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 CottonSenate approves border bill that prevents shutdown 'Morning Joe' host quizzes Howard Schultz on price of a box of Cheerios Huawei charges escalate Trump fight with China 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 HicksHillicon Valley: House Intel panel will release Russia interviews | T-Mobile, Sprint step up merger push | DHS cyber office hosting webinars on China | Nest warns customers to shore up password security House Intel panel votes to release Russia interview transcripts to Mueller White House announces changes in press office MORE, staff secretary Rob Porter, chief of staff Reince PriebusReinhold (Reince) Richard PriebusIs a presidential appointment worth the risk? Ex-White House aide says 'cartoon villain' Kellyanne Conway bad-mouthed colleagues Trump Org hires former WH ethics lawyer to deal with congressional probes 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 SchumerBill Kristol resurfaces video of Pence calling Obama executive action on immigration a 'profound mistake' House passes border deal, setting up Trump to declare emergency Christie: Trump doesn’t give nicknames to people he respects 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 DurbinGOP advances rules change to speed up confirmation of Trump nominees GOP leader presses Trump to agree to border deal Trump divides Democrats with warning of creeping socialism 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) MenendezWilliam Barr is right man for the times This week: Trump delivers State of the Union amid wall fight BuzzFeed story has more to say about media than the president 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.