WASHINGTON >> The dramatic departure of President Donald Trump’s hard-hitting national security adviser creates a vacuum of power and raises a key question about U.S. foreign policy: Will the pragmatists in the administration now gain clout?
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, both known as levelheaded technocrats, stand to fill some of the void. It would be a shift that would mollify anxious U.S. allies and even Republicans who worry Trump is veering too far from traditional U.S. positions. But the duo will be contending with Steve Bannon, Trump’s influential senior adviser, and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who is already playing an outsize role in his diplomacy.
Trump hasn’t named a replacement for Michael Flynn. Trump asked the former Army lieutenant general to resign Monday night amid revelations he misled Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russia while President Barack Obama was still in office. Trump has tasked retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg with filling the role temporarily but is also considering two other retired military leaders to permanently replace Flynn.
“It’s dysfunctional as far as national security is concerned,” Republican Sen. John McCain said. “Who is in charge? I don’t know of anyone outside of the White House who knows.”
Critics of Trump’s foreign policy plans are hoping the shakeup leads to a rethink of his desire to seek closer U.S.-Russian relations and a less hostile administration stance on Islam — a tone Flynn helped to set through often inflammatory statements about the religion. Many lawmakers from both parties were appalled to learn that Flynn, in the weeks before Trump’s inauguration, discussed with Russia’s ambassador sanctions that the Obama administration was imposing as punishment for Russia’s alleged interference in the presidential election.
Flynn, who in 2015 was paid to appear at a gala for Russian state-controlled television network RT, was the face of Trump’s potential Russia reboot, designed around working with Russia to fight the Islamic State group. In Moscow, Russian lawmakers bitterly mused that American paranoia had forced Flynn out, while analysts there surmised that the Kremlin’s honeymoon with Trump was ending.
With Flynn out, it could fall to Tillerson to step into the role of chief envoy to Russia. Tillerson, who heads to Bonn, Germany, on Wednesday on his first official trip, is widely expected to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during the trip. He has long experience with Russian leaders and was awarded a friendship honor by President Vladimir Putin when he was Exxon Mobil CEO.
Much depends on who replaces Flynn. It’s unclear if Trump will go with someone having a similar world view and willingness to upset the status quo. In his brief three-week tenure, Flynn stepped up U.S. rhetoric toward Iran and helped spearhead Trump’s controversial immigration order that sparked consternation and threats of retaliation in the Muslim world.
“I don’t think it will slow the White House down too much,” said Jim Carafano, a Heritage Foundation scholar who advised Trump’s transition team on foreign policy. Carafano said Flynn’s departure “takes away a trusted voice of the president” but that Trump would turn to other valued national security hands.
That could also mean an expanded role for Bannon, the conservative media executive with outspoken views about Islam who has consolidated immense influence over Trump’s foreign policy. Kushner, the husband of Trump’s daughter, also could broaden his portfolio, which already has him as a prime Trump emissary to key regions like the Middle East and Latin America despite his dearth of diplomatic or government experience.
Tillerson, too, has elicited concerns about his ties to Putin. But the oil man portrayed himself in a Senate confirmation hearing as well within mainstream U.S. thinking on Russia. And that view is prevailing on policy, at least for now, as the White House said Tuesday it is upholding the sanctions President Barack Obama imposed on Russia over Ukraine and the election meddling.
Tillerson, who has kept a low public profile since being sworn in, hasn’t commented on Flynn’s departure or on Trump’s early handling of foreign policy.
But Mattis, speaking to reporters while traveling to a NATO defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels, said Flynn’s departure “has no effect at all” on him.
“It doesn’t change my message,” Mattis said.
Like Tillerson, Mattis has emerged as part of the global reassurance team — Cabinet members familiar to foreign leaders who are easing concerns that Trump will follow through on combative rhetoric about upending U.S. foreign policy. On his first official trip abroad, to South Korea and Japan, Mattis insisted the U.S. wouldn’t abandon its treaty allies despite Trump’s suggestions that Washington would no longer bear the burden of other nations’ defenses.
“The key question is what is the connective tissue between the president and the actual policy,” said Derek Chollett, who held various national security posts under Obama. “Every president reaches a point where they stop getting listened to. With Trump, it may happen sooner if there’s a sense what he says isn’t actually translated into policy.”