(CNN)Rex Tillerson, after more than a year of semi-public feuding with President Donald Trump, has been fired. 

He’s the 2nd top Trump White House official to either resign or be fired in the past week -- following in the ignominious footsteps of top Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn. 

And Cohn’s departure followed hard on the resignations of White House communications director Hope Hicks and Josh Raffel, a confidante of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. 

Plus, Trump body man John McEntee was fired on Monday due to ongoing security clearance issues. 

And so was Steve Goldstein, the Under Secretary of Public Affairs at the State Department, who put out a statement Tuesday morning saying Tillerson was unaware of the reason he had been fired.  White House scolds Cabinet officials after embarrassing ethics reports


Thursday, April 5, 2018

Ever since the resignation of top advisers Gary Cohn and H.R. McMaster, it does seem as if the Trump White House has gotten more chaotic, if that is possible. But amid the noise and tumult, including the alarming tweets about Amazon and Mexico, let’s be honest — on one big, fundamental point, President Trump is right: China is a trade cheat.

Many of the Trump administration’s economic documents have been laughably sketchy and amateurish. But the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative’s report to Congress on China’s compliance with global trading rules is an exception worth reading. In measured prose and great detail, it lays out the many ways that China has failed to enact promised economic reforms and backtracked on others, and uses formal and informal means to block foreign firms from competing in China’s market. It points out correctly that in recent years, the Chinese government has increased its intervention in the economy, particularly taking aim at foreign companies. All of this directly contradicts Beijing’s commitments when it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.

Whether one accepts the trade representative’s conclusion that “the United States erred in supporting China’s entry into the WTO,” it is clear that the expectation that China would continue to liberalize its markets after its entry has proved to be mistaken.

Washington approached China’s entry into the world trading system no differently from that of other countries that joined in the mid-20th century. As countries were admitted, the free world (especially the United States) opened its markets to the new entrants, and those countries in turn lowered barriers to their markets. That’s how it went with such nations as Japan, South Korea and Singapore. But there were two notable factors about these countries: They were relatively small compared with the size of the global economy, and they also lived under the American security umbrella. Both factors meant that Washington and the West had considerable leverage over these new entrants. Singapore had 2.2 million people and a gross domestic product of $19 billion when it joined the GATT (the precursor to the WTO), while South Korea had 30 million people and a GDP of $41 billion. Japan was larger, with 90 million people and a GDP of under $800 billion. (All GDP figures are adjusted for inflation.)

And then came China, with 1.3 billion people and a GDP of $2.4 trillion when it joined the WTO in 2001. That was almost a fifth of the U.S. economy. The Chinese seemed to recognize that once they were in the system, the size of their market would ensure that every country would vie for access, and this would give them the ability to cheat without much fear of reprisal. Moreover, Beijing was never dependent on Washington for its security. It had fought a war against American troops in the 1950s with some success and had grown into a great power in its own right.

The scale and speed of China’s integration into the world trading system made it a seismic event. The distinguished economist David Autor, along with two colleagues, has published study after study on the impact of the so-called China Shock. They conclude that about a quarter of all manufacturing jobs lost in the United States between 1990 and 2007 could be explained by the deluge of Chinese imports. Nothing on this scale had happened before.

Look at the Chinese economy today. It has managed to block or curb the world’s most advanced and successful technology companies, from Google to Facebook to Amazon. Foreign banks often have to operate with local partners who add zero value — essentially a tax on foreign companies. Foreign manufacturers are forced to share their technology with local partners who then systematically reverse engineer some of the same products and compete against their partners. And then there is cybertheft. The most extensive cyberwarfare waged by a foreign power against the United States is done not by Russia but by China. The targets are American companies, whose secrets and intellectual property are then shared with Chinese competitors.

China is not alone. Countries such as India and Brazil are also trade cheats. In fact, the last series of world trade talks, the Doha Round, was killed by obstructionism from Brazil and India, in tandem with China. Today the greatest threat to the open world economy comes from these large countries that have chosen to maintain mixed economies, refuse to liberalize much more and have enough power to hold firm.

The Trump administration may not have chosen the wisest course forward — focusing on steel, slapping on tariffs, alienating key allies, working outside the WTO — but its frustration is understandable. Previous administrations exerted pressure privately, worked within the system and tried to get allies on board, with limited results. Getting tough on China is a case where I am willing to give Trump’s unconventional methods a try. Nothing else has worked.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group


Thursday, March 29, 2018

By way of explanation for some of President Trump’s bizarre foreign policy moves, we are often told that he is “unconventional” and that this could well be an asset. It’s certainly true that he doesn’t follow standard operating procedure on almost anything, from getting daily intelligence briefings to staffing the State Department. 

But his most striking departure from previous presidents has been in his rhetoric. American presidents have tended to weigh their words carefully, believing that they must preserve the credibility of the world’s leading power.

And then there is Trump, for whom words are weightless. During the campaign, he excoriated Saudi Arabia as a country that “want[s] women as slaves and to kill gays,” only to make his first presidential trip abroad to the kingdom and warmly embrace its rulers. He said NATO was obsolete and then affirmed the opposite. China was a currency manipulator that was “raping” the United States, until it wasn’t.

The loose rhetoric and idle threats have often backfired. After Trump was elected, he threatened China by musing about recognizing Taiwan. The Chinese government called his bluff and froze relations with Washington. Trump had to call President Xi Jinping and eat his words.

But there are situations in which such “flexibility” might work. On North Korea, Trump threatened to rain “fire and fury” on the country, only to now welcome a meeting with its leader. Trump’s supporters say that this kind of maneuvering could well produce a deal that has eluded more conventional approaches to the problem.

We should all hope that it will. But so far, it’s worth noting that the circus-like atmosphere of Trump’s alternating threats and embraces has obscured a key point: It’s Trump, not Kim Jong Un, who made the concession. The U.S. position has long been that until North Korea took some concrete steps toward denuclearization, there would be no presidential talks. Until recently, the Trump administration itself insisted that it would not reward the nuclear buildup with negotiations.

There is a good argument for being flexible on this procedural issue. But we should be aware that Kim seems to be executing a smart strategy brilliantly. He embarked on a fast-track buildup, creating a genuine nuclear arsenal with missiles that can deliver weapons around the world, risking tensions and even his relations with China. With the arsenal built, he is now mending relations with China, reaching out to South Korea and offering to negotiate with Washington.

Trump’s skill here might well be his willingness to totally abandon a past position and endorse a new one. The United States will have to accept something less than its long-declared goal — complete denuclearization — and maybe Trump will be able to find a way to sell it.

There is, however, a different kind of tough talk that is more worrying. The administration pushes hard on an issue — trade with South Korea, for example — and then announces a deal, claiming to have won significant concessions. In fact, these have been mostly symbolic concessions made by allies to allow the administration to save face. South Korea agreed to raise the number of cars that each American auto manufacturer can sell in the country from 25,000 to 50,000. It’s an easy concession to make. No U.S. company sold more than 11,000 cars there last year.

The United States remains a superpower. Its allies search for ways to accommodate it. The Trump administration can keep making outlandish demands, and it will obtain some concessions because no one wants an open breach with the United States. If Trump says the Europeans have to come up with some changes to the Iran deal, they will try to find a way to do so, because they don’t want to see the deal collapse and the West fall into disarray.

This is not a sign of power but rather the abuse of it. When the George W. Bush administration forced a series of countries to support the Iraq War, this did not signal American strength — it actually sapped that strength. This is a style that goes beyond the presidency. In recent years, the United States has grown accustomed to all kinds of special treatment. For example, New York state has used the power of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency to force foreign banks to pay fines and make settlements. It works, but it creates enormous resentment and leads countries such as China to search for ways to work outside the system because they think the existing one grants too much license to the United States.

America has built up its credibility and political capital over the past century. The Trump administration is raiding that trust fund for short-term political advantage, in ways that will permanently deplete it.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group


Saturday, March 17, 2018

If confirmed as secretary of state, Mike Pompeo will arrive at a State Department that has been battered by proposed budget cuts, hollowed out by resignations and vacancies, and neutered by President Trump’s impulsive and personal decision-making style. But Pompeo’s most immediate challenge will not be rebuilding the department and restoring morale; it will be dealing with an acute foreign policy crisis that is largely of the president’s own making — the Iran nuclear deal.

Pompeo will have to tackle a genuine foreign policy challenge soon. Trump has agreed to meet with Kim Jong Un before the end of May. This could be a promising development, defusing the rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula and across Asia. Yet before Trump even sits down with Kim at the negotiating table to discuss a nuclear deal, the administration will have to decide how to handle the preexisting deal with Tehran.

Trump has already announced that the United States will no longer abide by the Iran nuclear pact unless European leaders agree to “fix the deal’s disastrous flaws.” 

(And from the outset, he has been cheered in his hard-line posturing by Pompeo.) European nations seem unwilling to endorse more than cosmetic changes, and Iran has flatly refused to renegotiate. That means by May 12 the United States is set to pull out of the agreement, which could lead Iran to do the same and restart its nuclear program. This would happen at the very same time as the summit with North Korea — when the United States will surely be trying to convince North Korea of the benefits of signing a similar agreement.

To understand the virtues of the Iran deal, recall that a quarter-century ago, the United States was negotiating a nuclear accord with Pyongyang. At that point, North Korea had a nuclear program but no nuclear weapons. The Clinton administration was trying to get the regime to freeze its program, agree to some rollbacks and allow intrusive inspections. But the accord that was ultimately reached was far more limited than hoped for. The inspections process was weak, and the North Koreans cheated.

The Iranians in 2015 also did not have nuclear weapons (and insisted they had no intention of ever making them). Still, the nuclear deal required them to scale back significant aspects of their program, dismantling 13,000 centrifuges, giving up 98 percent of their enriched uranium and effectively shutting down their plutonium reactor at Arak. The International Atomic Energy Agency has cameras and inspectors in Iran at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle — from mines to labs to enrichment facilities. The IAEA attests that Tehran has abided by its end of the deal. Even Pompeo himself has conceded as much.

The Iran accord is not perfect, but it has stabilized a dangerous and spiraling situation in the Middle East. Were the deal to unravel, an already simmering region would get much hotter. (The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, recently affirmed that his kingdom would go nuclear if Iran did.) And, again, this would all be happening just as the Trump administration would be trying to convince the North Koreans to agree to limits, freezes, rollbacks and inspections of its own nuclear program. Why would Kim sign a deal while he watches the United States renege on the last one it signed?

The tragedy here is that this is an entirely self-inflicted crisis. There was already enough instability in the world that the administration did not need to create more. Pompeo should recognize that his job as secretary of state will be to solve problems, not produce them, and he should preserve the Iran accord and spend his time on North Korea. But that would still leave a considerable challenge regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons. There, too, the administration’s position — and his — has been maximalist, vowing to accept nothing less than the total denuclearization of North Korea. But that’s a negotiating position that can and should be adjusted over time, depending on North Korean behavior.

Pompeo should take a page from his boss’s book. Trump has reversed course on issue after issue, often with little explanation. He declared that NATO was obsolete only to say later that it was not. He promised to label China a currency manipulator and then decided against it. He insisted that talking to North Korea would be a waste of time and then eagerly announced that he would. And who knows, maybe Trump understands the public’s inattention and mood better than most of us. In any case, whatever Pompeo said about the Iran deal months ago is now ancient history. He should simply declare that right now, under the circumstances, the deal is worth preserving.

There are significant costs to America’s credibility and reputation if Washington keeps reversing its positions on core foreign policy issues. Yet there are greater costs to stubbornly persisting with the wrong policy. So, Mr. Pompeo, repeat after me: “The Iran deal was bad, but now it’s good.”

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group


There's any number of options, given that Trump has actively feuded with lots of his Cabinet since hand-picking them just over a year ago. Below, a variety of embattled Trump Cabinet members based on their likelihood to be given the Rex treatment -- aka fired via Twitter.  Maggie Haberman had some ideas... and so far about 50% of the swampers septic tank club are gone.

Jeff Sessions:  Trump has publicly attack the attorney general repeatedly -- calling him, among other things, "beleaguered" and "DISGRACEFUL." He has told not one but two news organizations that he would not have appointed Sessions as AG if he knew Sessions would recuse himself in the Russia investigation. He refers to Sessions as "Mr. Magoo" in private settings, according to the Washington Post. I mean....

Ryan Zinke: The Interior secretary was on the receiving end of a slew of negative press last week when word leaked out that the department had paid $139,000 to replace doors in his office space. Zinke pled ignorance and said he knew nothing of the expenditure, with his spokesperson pointing to a decision by career employees. 

Zinke is also facing a series of questions about whether his travel expenditures push the limits of legality. He was one of four Trump Cabinet officials -- Shulkin, HUD Secretary Ben Carson and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt were the others -- called to the White House in February for frank conversations about ethics. 

Scott Pruitt: The EPA administrator made news -- and not the good kind -- earlier this year when it was revealed he regularly flew first class and stayed in high end hotels, racking up expenses in excess of past people to hold his job. Pruitt said he flew 1st class because of the threats made against him. He has also faced scrutiny of late for allowing an EPA employee to pursue outside work as a media consultant. Not for nothing: Pruitt called Trump an "empty vessel" in 2016.

Ben Carson: The Housing and Urban Development secretary purchased, and then canceled, a $31,000 dining set for his work office. Why isn't he higher on this list? Because Trump likes him, and the two went through the political wars together in 2016.  I think that counts for something -- maybe a lot -- in Trump’s book.  But he is totally out of his field. Not even in the same county, possibly not even on this planet....

John Kelly: Reports are rampant that Kelly and Trump have fallen out, and that, as importantly, the White House chief of staff is in semi-open warfare with Javanka.  ( JAVANKA is the acronym for Jared and Ivanka)   Kelly’s ham-handed handling of the Rob Porter debacle and the resultant news coverage clearly knocked him down several pegs in Trump’s eyes.   And, Kelly was reportedly part of a "suicide pact" with Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis -- that if one left or was fired, they would all leave. Working against the idea of Kelly being fired: Trump loves “his" generals.

Betsy DeVos: The Education secretary has had a very rocky road. This weekend was the bumpiest bit yet as DeVos seemed totally out of her depth in an interview with "60 Minutes" Lesley Stahl. Trump hates negative headlines that he doesn't cause. But, it seems like he has more urgent firing priorities than DeVos. Quite frankly, she is a rich idiot who bought her way into the T-HUMP cabinet and has proven hanging with T-Hump proves she is stupider than a bag of rocks.

Jim Mattis: The "Mad Dog" is only on this list because of the aforementioned "suicide pact" with Tillerson and Kelly. That aside, he appears to be the Cabinet secretary who has clashed the least -- or the least publicly -- with Trump. So far, he might be the last voice of reason before they take that expression from our lexicon due to abuses by the T-Hump.  He might be hanging on to save the country from T-Hump in case the rogue President goes completely insane , he’s only 72% insane now.