Rex Tillerson: a rocky road with Trump that ended with a surprise firing

The secretary of state had known a battle was brewing – but he had survived similar clashes with the president before

Rex Tillerson’s last significant act as secretary of state was characteristically out of tune with the White House.

Donald Trump’s spokeswoman Sarah Sanders had avoided any blame of Russia for the poisoning of an ex-spy in Britain, but minutes later Tillerson issued his own statement, which was definitive in supporting the UK assessment that Moscow was behind the attack.

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You can stick it: protest posters in the age of Trump – in pictures

This paper-cut artwork by Zierlein, a German illustrator based in Northampton, Massachusetts, was inspired by the 2017 US Senate
vote to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren’s objections to confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions as US attorney general. Following the vote, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted”

The Guardian view on Theresa May’s Munich speech: partnership should be indivisible | Editorial

Britain is offering commitment and cooperation to Europe on security and intelligence. It should do the same in its Brexit strategy

Theresa May and Angela Merkel speak in Berlin on 16 February 2018

Theresa May and Angela Merkel speak in Berlin on 16 February 2018. ‘Theresa May is in every context except Brexit a traditional multilateralist.’ Photograph: Markus Schreiber/AP

A year ago, the annual Munich security conference – the most important gathering of international defence chiefs and ministers in the calendar – met to debate the proposition: “Post-truth, post-West, post-Order?” A year on, this weekend’s Munich conference has a new theme: “To the Brink – and Back?” The sense of relief implicit in the difference between the 2017 and the 2018 themes is unmistakeable and, to an extent, justifiable. The Trump administration has not, after all, trashed everything in the policymakers’ world, as it threatened to do 12 months ago. Explosions in relations with Iran, North Korea and even China have been averted, for now. Washington has not so far rolled over in the face of Russian aggression in eastern Europe. The so-called Islamic State has been pushed back, for the moment. The insurgent political tide that swept the US and the UK in 2016 has mostly been kept at bay elsewhere.

Yet while the worst may have been avoided, genuine positives are thin on the ground. Global confrontations continue and in some cases – the Middle East, for example – to deteriorate dangerously. The alliances that exist to control and resist them are still in shock at the Trump effect. Theresa May is in every context except Brexit a traditional multilateralist. She will certainly give a less thoroughly provocative speech at the Munich conference on Saturday than the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, did at the same venue 12 months ago, when he ludicrously described Brexit as a national “liberation”. Yet, viewed from elsewhere in Europe, Mrs May still leads a country that, by voting for Brexit, has made a serious contribution to the problem of instability, not one that is playing a reliable role in solving it.

Mrs May’s rhetorical answer is the mantra that Britain is leaving the European Union but not leaving Europe. Her visit to Angela Merkel in Berlin on Friday and her appearance at the Munich conference are designed to underpin that message and to make it a springboard for her Brexit strategy. Britain, Mrs May says, is fully committed to European cooperation, through Nato and in other ways, to deal with common threats to security. She will cite the fact that British troops are on the frontline against Russia in Estonia, that she has just pledged a new support role with France in the Sahel, that planned troop withdrawals from Germany are now being reexamined, and that the UK is a heavy-hitting and reliable partner in intelligence sharing and police coordination.

Security and intelligence have now been placed squarely in the vanguard of Mrs May’s political effort to persuade the rest of Europe that Britain remains a reliable and committed post-Brexit partner. The head of MI6, Alex Younger, appeared in Munich on Friday with his French and German counterparts to commit themselves to cross-border information sharing. His predecessor Sir John Sawers and the former GCHQ chief Robert Hannigan took to the media with a similar message. And the prime minister will cap this all off on Saturday in a speech that repeatedly urges closer cooperation with Europe and proposes a new UK-EU security treaty.

There are things to welcome here. After a grim two years of government negativity about the EU, it is a relief to hear the prime minister praising the union and being practical about it. Yet it is hard to see what EU partners are supposed to make of a prime minister who embraces the union at one moment then turns her back on it the rest of the time. The one thing that she could do to make her protestations more credible is to bolster it with a soft Brexit strategy. But this, disastrously, is the one thing she is terrified of doing.

The best signs from the Women’s March in London – in pictures

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Trump’s ‘clown fascism’ and the US constitution | Letters

For transatlantic admirers of Jonathan Freedland’s Bring Home the Revolution (1999), the shaking of Freedland’s regard for the American constitutional system is disappointing but understandable (The year of Trump has laid bare the US constitution’s serious flaws, 30 December). The first year in “Trumplandia” has been a disheartening, infuriating slog for most Americans; nevertheless, there is reason to hope that the constitutional mechanism will right itself and vindicate Freedland’s original estimate of it.

Freedland correctly diagnoses Donald Trump’s disregard for constitutional norms and the feckless lack of principle of today’s Grand Old Party, yet these very patterns of behaviour have engendered a renaissance in the assertion of first amendment rights by the American public, especially the exercise of free speech and free assembly, and the operation of a free press. Activism by individuals and by myriad groups has flowered; the “resistance” to Trump is real. The American media also have shaken off their torpor. The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Guardian, among others, are exposing the epic malfeasance and cynicism of Republican rule. The investigation by the special counsel Robert S Mueller promises, moreover, to reveal the irregularities of the 2016 election and to cast in sharper relief the sordid impulses that animate Trump’s “clown fascism”.

Removal of Trump through the impeachment process, as Freedland notes, seems improbable; however, the electoral eclipse of the GOP in 2018 and of Trump in 2020, and a return to normative political practice, remain real possibilities. Trump’s conduct is singularly atrocious but the American constitutional system has weathered graver challenges – a bloody civil war, McCarthyism – and emerged strengthened. While legislative and constitutional reinforcement of heretofore unwritten norms may be necessary in the longer term, the ballot box can still be a potent corrective in the shorter term.
David Routt
Richmond, Virginia, USA

Jonathan Freedland claims that it was a fatal oversight of the framers of the US constitution, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in particular, not to “reckon on a partisanship so intense it would blind elected representatives to the national interest – so that they would, repeatedly, put party ahead of country”. Yet in Federalist paper 10, The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection, written before the constitution was ratified, and laying out some of the thinking behind its creation, Madison writes of factions, defined as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community”.

Putting party ahead of country, as Freedland frames it, fits this definition fairly well. Further, it becomes increasingly clear, on any plausible and full reading of Madison’s paper, that the framers were well aware of the ways in which a powerful and united faction could corrupt both the republican ideal and its political practice.
James Garfield Doyle

Having long been held up as one of the great blueprints of democracy, the US constitution appears to be seriously – and centrally – flawed in allowing, indeed requiring, the president to nominate candidates for the supreme court. This, and the ensuing process of approval by the Senate, renders the appointment process inherently political.

Montesquieu’s theory of the separation of powers between legislature, executive and judiciary – recognised as the essential tenet of democracy, the merging of any two of such powers paving the way to totalitarianism – appears to have been overlooked by the wise and enlightened members of Congress who drafted the constitution.

The comparison with the process for appointments to the UK supreme court is stark, the selection here being an object lesson not only in choosing the best candidates but in depoliticised objectivity, those responsible for drafting the appointment rules being truly worthy of Montesquieu’s plaudits.

Trump’s appointment of the arch-conservative Neil Gorsuch to the supreme court brought into sharp focus the role of the president and the extension of his powers into all three facets of government, the electing of a president with scant regard for the value of civil society or the rule of law thus being a cause of great alarm.
Martin Allen
Shoreham, West Sussex

One thing that would make a great difference in the US system of government would be a fair electoral system. Not one that excludes anyone without big money, not one where large parts of the country appear as totally dominated by one of the big parties, and where minorities are unrepresented or, in the case of gerrymandering, where majorities are underrepresented.

If the single transferable vote were adopted, those who support gun control and other sane measures would be much freer to say so and the power of malignant bodies such as the NRA diminished.
Kevin Chaffey
Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh

Jonathan Freedland says that “the US has an unwritten constitution that – just like ours – relies on the self-restraint of the key political players”. In the UK we have at least one very striking parallel. Before Margaret Thatcher’s time, certainly from the end of the second world war onwards, that self-restraint was generally practised and we experienced a relatively pluralist approach to governance. Thatcher and her people recognised that constitutionally the centre was in charge and that the self-restraint previously practised would only prevent them from reaching their objectives. In this sense Thatcher was a populist too, not entirely dissimilar from Trump, and we are still suffering from her legacy four decades later.
Professor Ron Glatter
Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire

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‘What a year it’s been’: Trump lauds major feats of 2017 in end-of-year video

Donald Trump has posted a video summarising his first year in office, which gives an insight into what the president sees as his biggest accomplishments as 2018 begins.

Beginning with martial drums and numerous shots of the Marine One helicopter, and US soldiers keeping watch over the president, the three-and-a-half-minute clip focuses first on Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the supreme court – one of his best decisions in the eyes of conservatives, but a move viewed much more nervously by liberals.

Donald J. Trump

What a year it’s been, and we’re just getting started. Together, we are MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! Happy New Year!!

December 31, 2017

The video then skips to footage of Trump speaking to victims of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and holding up a Puerto Rican flag – glossing over his lengthy dispute with authorities in the US territory over the perceived weakness of the federal response to Hurricane Maria there compared to the aid given after disasters on the mainland.

A quick out-of-focus shot of Trump chatting to Theresa May at the G20 in Germany also airbrushes a tricky relationship – most recently when her criticism of his decision to retweet messages from a British far-right group led to Trump tetchily telling her she should focus on “Radical Islamic Terrorism” and not on him.

As the controversial speech he made in Poland in which he said “our civilisation will triumph” plays, Trump is shown at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the city he recognised as Israel’s capital this month in the face of almost unanimous opposition from foreign allies, who view its status as a key part of future negotiations with the Palestinians.

Trump goes on to hail jobs figures (whose strength can be overstated), the rise in the stock market (which he has been accused of using as “a substitute metric for success given his anemic poll numbers”), and his recent tax cuts (which favour the rich and corporations), as well as his idiosyncratic campaign to politicise the phrase “Merry Christmas”, before ending with an excerpt from a speech he made to the US air force in which he told personnel, “For America, the sky is never the limit,” as the camera lingers ominously on a fighter jet.

Trump’s social media team has made a habit of releasing short videos to mark what the administration considers key events. This new year one is perhaps less avant-garde than the recap of Trump’s trip to Asia in November, which featured backwards footage of local cyclists and slo-mo clips of the president striding along red carpets, all soundtracked by a tune that recalled Hans Zimmer’s Rain Man soundtrack. And it is slightly less jingoistic than his iMovie-style slideshow of his trip to the G20, which included a song based around his campaign slogan “make America great again”.

But he returned to that theme with the message that accompanied his new year video, telling his 45.5 million followers: “What a year it’s been, and we’re just getting started. Together, we are MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! Happy New Year!!”

Whether the thought that Trump is just getting started will delight or terrify you in 2018 may depend somewhat on your political persuasion.

As midnight approached, the president followed up with a tweet that recalled last year’s infamous new year’s message focusing on his “many enemies”.

The enemies, and indeed haters, still got a mention, but there was room this year for friends too – and even the “Fake News Media”.

Donald J. Trump

As our Country rapidly grows stronger and smarter, I want to wish all of my friends, supporters, enemies, haters, and even the very dishonest Fake News Media, a Happy and Healthy New Year. 2018 will be a great year for America!

December 31, 2017