Washington Wednesday: Cabinet turnover

MARY REICHARD, HOST: From member-supported WORLD Radio, this is The World and Everything in It for Wednesday, April 4th. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

KENT COVINGTON, HOST: And I’m Kent Covington. And today is Washington Wednesday. 

TRUMP: Secretary Tillerson, I first want to congratulate you…

In February of last year, President Trump welcomed Rex Tillerson to the White House for his swearing in ceremony as secretary of state.

TRUMP: You bring the unique skills and deep, deep insight, and I’ve gotten to see it firsthand, into foreign diplomacy our nation needs.

But after a rocky 13-month tenure, Rex Tillerson last month got his walking papers.

TILLERSON: I’ll now return to private life as a private citizen, as a private America. Proud of the opportunity I’ve had to serve my country.

With Tillerson’s departure, President Trump announced he was nominating CIA Director Mike Pompeo to take his place. And that turned out to be only part of a round of major changes the president made to his young administration.

Also last month, the president parted ways with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. To replace him, Trump picked John Bolton, former ambassador to the United Nations. He held that post under President George W. Bush after also working for presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.

A week later, Trump fired Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.

Other high profile firings or resignations include former chief of staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Steve Bannon, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Top Price.

National Security Advisor Michael Flynn lasted less than a month before resigning amid controversy.

And the White House is now searching for its fifth communications director.

The Trump administration says the changes prove the president won’t hesitate to take action if he’s not happy with any official’s performance.

TRUMP: We need to get the best and finest, and if we don’t, we’ll be in trouble for a long period of time.

But critics say it shows an administration in chaos, unable to hire or retain good people for important positions. A Brookings Institution study found the Trump administration turnover rate is higher than the last five administrations.

Joining me now to talk about to big recent changes in particular is Elliott Abrams. He is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. In the past, he served as an assistant secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan and deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush. And he joins us now on the telephone from Washington.

And Mr. Abrams, given your expertise with foreign policy, and you’re experience in working with John Bolton, I want to ask you about those two changes: secretary of state and the president’s national security advisor.

But first, again, the administration says the turnover shows the president’s a man of action. Critics say an administration in chaos. What do you say?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS, GUEST: I think you have a president who has never served in the government before. He comes in, hires a team, and then, ya know, needs to figure out what exactly is the job of president, what are the kinds of people and the specific individuals I want. And now… he’s getting people he trusts and wants to have closer to him. In the case of Secretary Tillerson, I think there was a fairly broad consensus that it had not been a successful tenure at State. So, I think in this area, and, ya know, with Secretary Mattis staying on, I think the turnover is being a bit exaggerated.

Okay. Assuming he’s confirmed, what kind of Secretary of State do you think Mike Pompeo will be?

ABRAMS: Well, I’m pretty optimistic because he had a very good tenure at CIA. The problem for Secretary Tillerson was in part he also had never been in government and couldn’t seem to make the switch from being a corporation executive to being a government executive. Pretty different. Mike Pompeo was in Congress, then went to the CIA where he’s been successful. I mean, morale at CIA is very good. You don’t read stories about people retiring, about protests, about ineffectiveness of the agency. So, he’s worked with the permanent staff at the CIA and gotten them to do what he wants them to do, as he will at the State Department. So I’m looking forward to this tenure.

Let me ask you this: How important is — if you can explain this in simple terms, how important is a Secretary of State? Obviously it’s an extremely high ranking position, but I’ve heard some people say that at the end of the day, the Secretary of State’s really just a glorified messenger. So explain the importance of that role and why we should care who’s in it.

ABRAMS: Usually, it isn’t true that the Secretary is just a messenger or the system is failing. Because the Secretary of State is supposed to be the main foreign policy adviser of the president, supposed to speak for the president. One of the problems, towards the end of Rex Tillerson’s tenure was he’d go someplace and the king, the president, the prime minister, whoever he was seeing would talk to him but would then think, ‘Hmm. I wonder if what I’m hearing is what Donald Trump thinks.’ So, if we have a Secretary of State who doesn’t represent the president, then we don’t have a top diplomat who can go around the world and try to push, pressure, cajole, persuade people to do the things we want them to do.

That’s the role, that’s the importance of the Secretary of State: influencing and convincing?

ABRAMS: Uh, two things, I’d say. First with foreigners, yes. Convincing them to do what the United States wants them to do. And speaking publicly and explain why we have the policies we have… The other is managing the department. We’ve got these roughly 200 embassies around the world, we’re on a day-to-day working basis. That machine has got to work… So that’s largely a management problem and I’m hoping and expecting that Mike Pompeo will appoint good people and be on top of that.

Okay. Now, let me ask you the same question I just asked, but about the National Security Adviser. So, explain the role of National Security Adviser and why that’s important, again, why we should care who’s in that role.

ABRAMS: The National Security Adviser is in the White House and sees the president usually on a daily basis, maybe 10 times a day. So it’s a very different role, ya know, you’re not traveling all the time to Beijing and Moscow and Jerusalem and so forth talking to foreign governments. You’re talking more to the president and you’re making the bureaucracy work. President’s one guy. So one of the things the National Security Adviser does is bring to the president decisions, make sure he knows, well, here’s what State thinks, here’s what Defense thinks, here’s what CIA thinks, but then make sure the bureaucracy is implementing the decision. Make sure that they understand what the president wants.

Now, H.R. McMaster is a 3-star general, seemingly a very qualified, very knowledgeable guy, so why did he get the boot here?

ABRAMS: McMaster, like Tillerson, never established the kind of close working relationship that, for example, Pompeo did with the president. So since the National Security Adviser sees the president all the time, unless they click, it’s really a problem. So I think part of it is just the personal part. I think, also, there’s a sense that in his relationship with Tillerson and Mattis, General Mattis at Defense Department, he was in a kind of subordinate role. I mean, he was a 3-star. Mattis is a 4-star. I think John Bolton is kind of a 7-star. So, I think that you don’t want your National Security Adviser to feel, well, you know, all these guys outrank me. Because you represent the president if you’re National Security Adviser, and it looks as if that never quite worked.

So, what can you tell us about John Bolton. Strong choice in your view?

ABRAMS: Well, I think he’s a terrific choice and I’ve known John for, oh, 20 years, I guess. He’s very tough. He’s very, very smart. He’s very knowledgeable. He’s been dealing with these foreign policy issues for a very long time. People say that he’s got sharp elbows and he’s argumentative. I would have to say, in my experience, he’s argumentative in the right way. He’ll say, gee, I think that’s completely wrong, and then you argue it out. And I’ve disagreed with him and we’ve had these arguments, it hasn’t affected our friendship. And I think this is going to help the president a lot because he’s going to be hearing, really, the best quality arguments for positions that are coming up to him for decision.

Okay, so you’ve mentioned some of Bolton’s strengths. If he was a weakness, what is it?

ABRAMS: (chuckles) I guess he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He does his homework, and if people disagree and take an opposing position, that’s great. That’s intellectual combat. But if they have not prepared, if their argument is second-rate, if they don’t have the answers to the questions he raises, they’re going to feel, I suppose, gee, this guy was mean. This guy was too tough. Of course, they shouldn’t. This is the big leagues. But, I think people will think that’s a weakness.

Okay, Elliott Abrams, thanks so much, sir. We appreciate it.

ABRAMS: Been my pleasure.

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File) In this Feb. 24, 2017, file photo, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Md.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Washington Wednesday: Cabinet turnover

  1. Bill Burnham says:

    Thank you for doing this. I’m a member and this will definitely help me encourage others to listen by sending articles to them that are relevant.

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