President Trump has removed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replaced him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo in a move that stunned Washington with its timing.
Trump is nominating Gina Haspel, Pompeo’s current deputy, to lead the CIA.
Trump told reporters Tuesday morning that he made the decision “by myself,” signaling he did not speak with Tillerson before firing him.
“I actually got along great with Rex, but really, it was a different mindset,” Trump said from the White House.
Those comments belied the fact that Trump and Tillerson had repeatedly clashed, most famously when the secretary of State reportedly referred to Trump in private as a “moron.” The report clearly got under Trump’s skin, and the president responded by challenging Tillerson to an IQ test.
Trump tweeted the news of the staff changes shortly after Tillerson’s firing was first reported by The Washington Post.
“Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State,” Trump tweeted.
“He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!”
Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2018
A White House official told The Hill that White House chief of staff John Kelly called Tillerson on Friday night to tell him that Trump had decided to let him go. The official said the call was short and not testy, and that it was not focused on policy issues or differences.
Tillerson asked and Kelly agreed that an announcement would be held back until Tillerson’s return. Tillerson returned to the United States early Tuesday morning — hours before the Post story broke.
State Department officials did not immediately respond to The Hill’s requests for comment on Tillerson’s abrupt ouster, though a State Department official released a statement that said Tillerson was unaware of the reason for his removal.
“The Secretary had every intention of remaining because of the tangible progress made on critical national security issues,” said the statement from Steve Goldstein, under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs.
“The Secretary did not speak to the President this morning and is unaware of the reason, but he is grateful for the opportunity to serve, and still believes strongly that public service is a noble calling and not to be regretted.”
Tillerson and Trump have had a tempestuous relationship, so it was not shocking that Tillerson would be removed.
However, the timing of Tillerson’s firing was a surprise, given the diplomatic workload at the moment.
On Thursday, Trump shocked the world by accepting an invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which would make him the first sitting U.S. president to meet with a North Korean leader. It’s possible that Tillerson’s removal was made with that meeting in mind, if Trump wanted Pompeo by his side for the historic occasion.
He’s also moving forward with a Middle East peace plan after angering the Arab world by announcing the U.S. would move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
And the administration continues to deal with Russia and its entanglement in the 2016 presidential election — with critics charging that Trump has not taken a tough enough approach with the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
There were differences in rhetoric between Tillerson and the White House on foreign policy, including on Monday, when Tillerson pointed the finger at Moscow over the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in London. The White House earlier in the day had notably not blamed Russia for the incident, despite claims from Great Britain’s prime minister.
Late last year, speculation mounted in Washington that Tillerson would be replaced, and reports circulated that Pompeo could be his successor.
Tillerson was one of the first Cabinet secretaries to be confirmed in the Trump administration, but his brief tenure has been rocked by criticism and continuing signs of low morale at the State Department, where he has often been perceived as an absent leader.
Tillerson, a low-key Texan, never felt comfortable in Washington and did his best to work in private and avoid the media. He faced scrutiny in Washington, even from Republican lawmakers, as he has overseen a controversial redesign of the State Department that has been unpopular among officials there.
Many career diplomats have exited under his leadership, and Tillerson has reportedly clashed with White House officials on key appointments.
Pompeo, meanwhile, is viewed as one of Trump’s most trusted Cabinet members. He reportedly meets nearly daily with Trump to brief him on national security, which requires him to travel from CIA headquarters in Virginia to the White House.
Pompeo, a former Republican congressman, has taken a decidedly more hawkish stance than Tillerson on matters such as North Korea and the Iran nuclear deal.
In a statement, Pompeo said he was “deeply grateful” to Trump for allowing him to serve as CIA chief and now secretary of State. He will now need to be confirmed by the full Senate to lead the State Department.
“If confirmed, I look forward to guiding the world’s finest diplomatic corps in formulating and executing the President’s foreign policy,” Pompeo said. “In my time as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, I have worked alongside many remarkable Foreign Service officers and Department of State leaders serving here in the United States and on the very edge of freedom.”
Tillerson’s removal comes days before he was slated to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the department’s fiscal year 2019 budget request. The State Department, like other agencies, has been dealt deep cuts in the Trump administration’s funding proposals, while the departments of Defense and Homeland Security have seen their budgets increased.
The decision to replace Tillerson, a former CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., throws into further uncertainty the State Department’s most senior ranks. The agency has seen an exodus of longtime career officials under Tillerson, which has been highlighted in recent months by the departures of some of the department’s most experienced diplomats.
Despite Tillerson’s rocky tenure at the State Department, he has indicated in more recent months that he planned to remain at the agency for the foreseeable future. He told CNN in an interview in January that he intended to stay on at least through 2018.
“I intend to be here for the whole year,” he said at the time. -THE HILL