New York lawmakers divided on Rexit

United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
Alexandros Michailidis/Shuttersock
United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

New York lawmakers divided on Rexit

Democrats bemoan White House chaos, while Republicans welcome Pompeo.
March 13, 2018

After months of speculation, Rexit is here. Embattled Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired by President Donald Trump, who announced the decision to replace Tillerson with current CIA Director Mike Pompeo on Twitter. CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel will be the new director of the agency, if both she and Pompeo are confirmed by the Senate.

The news of Tillerson’s impending departure divided New York’s lawmakers, with Democrats decrying the lack of stability in the White House and Republicans cheering the choice of Pompeo, their former colleague in Congress.

Tillerson and Trump have had several policy and personality differences, such that Tillerson allegedly calling the president a “moron” appears not to have even been the primary cause of his demise. Trump justified the staff change by saying he wanted a new team for his upcoming talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but the president and Tillerson have also differed on issues such as continuing with the agreement in which Iran agreed to forgo nuclear weapons.

“When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible. I guess he thought it was okay,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday, discussing his dismissal of Tillerson. Opposition to the 2015 Iran agreement is especially strong among New York Republicans, who tend to be hawkish on Middle East policy. While New York Democrats tend to be staunch supporters of Israel, they are more inclined to back former President Barack Obama’s Iran deal, arguing that preventing a nuclear Iran is in the interest of the United States and its allies, including Israel.

Democrats are also more likely to side with Tillerson over Trump and congressional Republicans on two key areas in which the secretary of state and the president differed: Russian meddling and covert operations in the U.S. and other Western democracies, and the withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, argued for staying in the climate pact. He also supported the United Kingdom’s assertion that Russia was responsible for the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England last week. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris agreement and has refused to say whether Russia is responsible for Skripal’s poisoning.

In the wake of Tillerson's firing, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer wrote on Twitter that the constant staff turnover in the White House hurts the country, but ended on a cautiously optimistic note regarding Pompeo’s nomination.

Pompeo has broken with Trump in concluding that the Russian government interfered with the 2016 presidential elections.

Schumer was also initially opposed to the Iran nuclear deal when it was brokered by the Obama administration, although he softened his position when it appeared as if Trump might back out of the deal last year. Tillerson supported the continuation of the deal, while Pompeo has taken a harder line against Iran.

Democratic Reps. Eliot Engel and Sean Patrick Maloney also released statements condemning the instability in the executive branch. Engel is the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
 

Long Island Republican Reps. Lee Zeldin and Peter King tweeted statements that did not mention Tillerson, but displayed unbridled enthusiasm for Pompeo’s nomination. Zeldin and King both represent districts with large Jewish populations, and Zeldin is one of two Jewish Republican representatives in Congress. Both have criticized the Iran nuclear deal, and therefore may be more receptive to a secretary of state who shares their opinion on the agreement.

Lawrence Levy, the executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said that Zeldin and King would be inclined to support Trump’s decision because he is still relatively popular in their districts, and they also know Pompeo from his time in Congress.

“Zeldin and King have backed Trump on most issues, except a few that really hurt their suburban constituents, such as reducing the state and local tax deductibility,” Levy said. “Rex Tillerson isn’t of a lot of importance to the typical voter, so there's really no reason for Zeldin and King to be concerned, because they know and respect Mike Pompeo.”

In a statement, Staten Island Rep. Dan Donovan also asserted his support for Pompeo, saying the new secretary of state would continue to enact Trump’s foreign policy goals. “Despite constant second-guessing from the media, President Trump’s foreign policy so far has been a roaring success,” Donovan said. Donovan is facing a primary from former Rep. Michael Grimm, who has accused the incumbent of not being supportive enough of Trump.

Grace Segers
is City & State’s digital reporter. She writes daily content on New York City and New York state politics.
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