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Ambassador Weighs In On Tillerson Shakeup


All right, we're going to bring in the voice of Ambassador Chris Hill. He served as an assistant secretary of state under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and has also served as U.S. ambassador to four countries, including South Korea.

Ambassador Hill, thanks for being with us.

CHRIS HILL: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: What do you make of this shake-up?

HILL: Well, it's been expected for several months. One had the impression that it was going to happen toward the end of the year, but ultimately, nothing happened, perhaps because there are other issues on the president's plate. But it has finally happened. It was rather inevitable. And I guess now the question is how they're going to go forward on this North Korean issue. I mean, clearly, Secretary Tillerson had some strengths. I mean, certainly, if there were a multiple-choice question on foreign affairs, he'd do very well. But his failure to garner any allies in Washington, whether on the Hill, in the press or even his own State Department, was quite emblematic of someone who simply could not build the alliances necessary to do his job. So it's not going to go down well in history for him.

MARTIN: As you note, the president and Secretary Tillerson have had real differences on policy issues, as well. I mean, Tillerson has been more forward-leaning on Russia, to some degree. You've got this case of this former Soviet spy and his daughter poisoned in the U.K., the prime minister there blaming Russia. Secretary Tillerson called this a really egregious act that appears to have, quote, "clearly come from Russia." That is much stronger than anything that came out of the White House. This was just one of several issues where he just seemed to be out of step with this president.

HILL: Yes. Rex Tillerson came into office with a bit of a monkey on his back about his relationship with Vladimir Putin and the expectation that somehow he was going to be soft on the Russians. Well, he quickly made very clear that he's not at all soft on them, and he's actually been very supportive of the allies. I think his public statements have been very good, very much in keeping with kind of traditional stagecraft and allied management. Unfortunately, however, the president didn't see things the way he did. And certainly, the president wasn't prepared to or still seems not to be prepared to criticize the Russians, even when it comes to out-and-out attempts at murder. So there is a big difference.

And the question will be, Pompeo, who comes into office not as some kind of engagement guy on North Korea or, for that matter, on Russia, how is he going to manage this? Because he is - he comes out of this kind of tradition of very sort of hard-line Republican national security thinkers. And he does not seem to be the sort of person who would be first to suggest that our president should go and have a chat with Kim Jong Un.

MARTIN: So you think that we could see the president walk that decision back now that - if - with his new secretary of state in place - once he gets in place.

HILL: I think it's fair to say that Pompeo has been - how to put it - rather flexible on these issues. He has made a good relationship with the president. And so I would say the good news is he has a good relationship with the president. The bad news may be the same thing - that is, he's not been, so far, prepared to say the president shouldn't do things. So I would expect him to try to work assiduously to try to make that meeting with Kim Jong Un a success. But a lot of work needs to be done. And from what I can tell, very little so far has been done. I mean, the South Koreans have already been to Beijing and Tokyo. And one of the problems of Tillerson is he just never seemed to put together a team. He had one or two staffers. He did not understand the need to use several thousand other people to extend his reach. He's failed to get people in position. It's been really quite chaotic at the State Department.

MARTIN: How much of that was because of the president himself, who was undermining some of the appointments that Tillerson wanted to make from the beginning? I mean, will Pompeo at least have the president's support so he can fill key positions like, say, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea?

HILL: I would say Pompeo will have his support, and I don't think the president's going to stand in the way of Pompeo. Pompeo has allies all around town. He's a smart operator in the way that Tillerson just always seemed to be a stranger in a strange land. So to be sure, some of Tillerson's suggested appointees were not met with favor in the White House. But neither have some of General Mattis' appointees, and Mattis had simply went on and found people that were acceptable. And Tillerson just seemed to be stumped when he was stopped by the White House personnel office. So I think he's had a very tough time.

MARTIN: It sounds like, though, I am hearing you sound optimistic in this moment about this policy, about this personnel shift - at least, at the State Department.

HILL: Well, these are fraught times we live in, and probably, the word optimism is not appropriate. But I think we need to have some modicum of cooperation between the president and the secretary of state. I think they are - there are going to be different perspectives. But Pompeo has shown a capacity to stick up for his own staff, which we've seen him do at the CIA. And I hope that good relation - he could cash in, to some extent, on that good relationship with the president.

MARTIN: All right, Ambassador Chris Hill served as assistant secretary of state. Thanks for your time this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.