The Trump administration’s biggest shakeup yet points to a huge shift in US-Russia relations

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk during the family photo session at the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam November 11, 2017.

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U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin talk during the family photo session at the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam November 11, 2017.
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Reuters/Jorge Silva

  • President Donald Trump abruptly announced this week that CIA Director Mike Pompeo will replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, and that CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel will assume leadership of the agency following Pompeo’s departure.
  • The development signals a potentially huge shift in US-Russia relations, with Pompeo taking a more moderate stance as the US’s chief diplomat, and Haspel bringing a more hawkish view on Russia to the CIA.

This week, President Donald Trump made the biggest shakeup to his administration since taking office.

And it’s one that will have lasting effects on the US’s national security, its relationship with Russia, and its standing on the world stage.

Trump announced Tuesday that CIA Director Mike Pompeo will replace Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, and that CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel will replace Pompeo as head of the agency.

The announcement came after months of tension between Trump and Tillerson, who were frequently at odds over the US’s foreign policy as it relates to North Korea, Iran, and other international hotbeds.

But with Pompeo as the country’s chief diplomat and Haspel as the head of a major US intelligence arm, there may be more friction down the road between the White House, the State Department, and the CIA on the one topic that has plagued the Trump presidency from the start: Russia.

Pompeo, the former chair of the House Intelligence Committee, was a hardline Tea Party Republican and an early Trump supporter. As CIA director, he has largely backed the president’s views on key issues like Russia’s election interference, the Iran nuclear deal, and torture.

However, Pompeo has been more forceful than Trump when it comes to acknowledging Russia’s aggression overall, particularly in the cyber arena, toward the West.

Whether he’ll continue to do so at the State Department remains to be seen.

Will Pompeo ‘fall in line with the president’ on Russia?

Mike Pompeo

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Joe Raedle / Getty Images

“Pompeo was at an agency providing substantive indications and intelligence that backed Russia’s undermining of the US, and it’s difficult to reject that information when you’re the head of the agency,” said Mark Simakovsky, a senior fellow and Russia expert at the Atlantic Council.

“One of the main things to watch as he goes to the State Department, where he’ll be a critical part of making and implementing US policy around the world, is whether his views stay the same, or if he falls in line with the president,” he said.

Gen. Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA and National Security Agency, was more blunt in his assessment.

“Pompeo, by all accounts, thinks and speaks more like the president than Tillerson ever did,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Hill. “He has also been more willing than previous CIA directors to infuse his public commentary with pro-administration policy prescriptions.”

Hayden added that while Pompeo has a good record of “straight-up reporting of the agency’s views,” he still “thinks a lot like the president does … and may be less of a counterpoint than Tillerson has been.”

Glenn Carle, a former covert CIA operative, echoed that view and characterized Pompeo as “bright, but unprincipled.”

Tillerson’s departure, moreover, demonstrates that their approach to Russia is still one of the barometers Trump places on his administration officials, and that “folks who are not willing to toe the line on Russia may be heading to the exits,” Simakovsky said.

To be sure, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, both of whom have either made statements or acted against the president’s views on Russia, are rumored to be the next officials who will be shown the door.

Overall, Simakovsky said, one should expect a moderation in Pompeo’s Russia views.

“I think he’s going to be very careful about what he says before his confirmation,” particularly when facing lawmakers who are more critical of Russia, he said. “But after, I expect we’ll see a much more moderate Pompeo on Russia.”

Gina Haspel: A Russia hawk with a controversial past

Meanwhile, Haspel, the incoming CIA director who will replace Pompeo, has a more hawkish record when it comes to Russia but faces an uphill Senate confirmation battle because of her role in the CIA’s torture program and her oversight of an agency black site. She has also come under fire for reportedly playing a part in destroying CIA interrogation tapes.

Experts and Haspel’s former colleagues are confident that her tenure as a career intelligence official and her former experience serving as deputy head of the CIA’s Russia desk will translate to a decrease in the politicization of the agency that occurred when Pompeo assumed leadership.

“She’s someone who knows the field well and has a long history of involvement with this subject matter,” said one former CIA official who worked with Haspel. “There’s no politics that will get in the way for her, unlike Pompeo. Her loyalties lie with the CIA.”

“The CIA is going to be in good hands on Russia,” Simakovsky said. “Of course, the question is how her relationship with the White House will be because of those views and because she doesn’t have any special relationship with the president.”

The former official raised a similar concern: “Will she be able to carry the agency’s mission, or will we see that fade? How long before Trump ousts her for giving it to him straight when it comes to Russia?”