WASHINGTON - About 13 hours before he was fired as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson issued perhaps his toughest comments to date on Russia. He said that a nerve agent used on a former Russian spy in Britain last week "clearly came from Russia." He also called Russia "an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens."
It was perhaps his last major act as secretary of state. But was it the reason for his dismissal - or even a last straw?
The White House is insisting the decision to fire Tillerson had been made before his comments Monday evening - that he was informed of the decision in the early-morning hours on Saturday, before returning from a trip to Africa. But a statement from a top State Department spokesman Tuesday indicated Tillerson had no advance warning of his termination beyond a heads-up that Trump would tweet something. (The spokesman, Steve Goldstein, has now been fired for contradicting the White House.)
Democrats quickly alleged Tuesday that Tillerson was fired for being too tough on Putin.
"Secretary Tillerson's firing sets a profoundly disturbing precedent in which standing up for our allies against Russian aggression is grounds for a humiliating dismissal," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said.
Added Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.: "Just hours ago, Rex Tillerson became the lone Trump administration cabinet official to stand with the United Kingdom in condemning Russia's nerve agent attack on English soil. Donald Trump's reaction to Tillerson's support of a close American ally facing threats from Russia was to fire him."
Even if Tillerson's firing wasn't a direct result of his comments Monday, though, it could be symptomatic. And there is a clear disconnect between him and the White House on the issue.
Tillerson's comments about Russia have not been echoed by the White House -- even as the United States's key ally, Britain, has concluded it was "highly likely" Russia was at least complicit in the attack. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders offered some noncommittal remarks Monday about Russia's alleged role in the nerve agent attack. Trump spoke Tuesday with British Prime Minister Theresa May, but according to a White House readout he said only that Russia "must provide unambiguous answers" about the matter.
It's not unreasonable to think Trump was unhappy with Tillerson's comments or general approach to Russia. He has, after all, repeatedly suggested the United States needs to craft an alliance with Russia - even at the expense of getting to the bottom of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump has also frequently cast doubt that Russian even interfered and said a few months ago that he believes Vladimir Putin's denials are genuine.
All of this runs counter to what the U.S. intelligence community has concluded about the entire affair. And now Trump is in the position of either trusting or doubting Britain's conclusions about Russia's alleged incursion into its homeland. Trusting them would undoubtedly cause a rift with Russia; doubting them would be entirely in-character for Trump and allow him to keep arguing for an alliance with Russia.
One of the great ironies of this whole situation is that the biggest knock on Tillerson when Trump selected him as secretary of state was his allegedly too-cozy relationship with Putin. Putin, in fact, had awarded the then-ExxonMobil chief executive the Russian Order of Friendship back in 2013. There are even photos of them shaking hands from 2012.
The idea that Tillerson, of all people, has now lost his job because he was too tough on Putin is surely an attractive argument for Democrats.
Whether we can connect A to B is to-be-determined. But firing Tillerson shortly after his tough talk on Russia was bound to lead to some inescapable conclusions. And if the White House continues to slow-walk the Britain-Russia situation, that'll be a pretty good indicator that it was at least a symptom of a larger disconnect.