In sudden move, Tillerson out, Pompeo to be new secretary of state
President Donald Trump said Tuesday he is removing Rex Tillerson after a rocky tenure and nominating CIA Director Mike Pompeo in his place, a shake-up that appeared to take the secretary of state by surprise.
“I’ve worked with Mike Pompeo now for quite some time,” Trump told reporters outside the White House. “Tremendous energy. Tremendous intellect. We’re always on the same wavelength. The relationship has been very good, and that’s what I need as secretary of state.”
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Trump said he and Tillerson did not see eye-to-eye on major foreign policy issues, naming as an example the Iran nuclear deal. The president said he thought it was a bad agreement, but he said Tillerson supported it.
“I wish Rex Tillerson well,” the president said. “I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want.”
“I think Rex will be much happier now,” he said.
Trump and Tillerson have been frequently at odds since the former ExxonMobil CEO took over at Foggy Bottom. But a spokesman for Tillerson said Tuesday he had not been planning to leave and wasn’t sure why he was being ousted now.
“The secretary had every intention of remaining because of the tangible progress made on critical national security issues,” said Steve Goldstein, under secretary of state for 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.”
Later on Tuesday, the State Department said Goldstein, too, would leave.
Tillerson, in farewell remarks from the State Department briefing room, said he would hand off his responsibilities to Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan but remain officially in his post through the remainder of the month.
“What is most important is to ensure an orderly and smooth transition during a time that the country continues to face significant policy and national security challenges,” a visibly emotional Tillerson, who did not take questions, told reporters.
Tillerson said he would encourage other State Department officials to remain in their jobs. He touted the administration’s campaign to increase pressure on North Korea and warned that Russia’s current trajectory is likely to lead to greater isolation on their part, a situation which is not in anyone’s interests.”
Tillerson’s exit removes a source of frustration to Trump and elevates an official, Pompeo, who more closely shares his worldview. A senior White House official said Trump wanted Tillerson out so he could have his new team in place before upcoming talks with North Korea. The president agreed last week to sit down with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Tillerson had said just hours before Trump’s announcement that such negotiations were a long way off.
“I don’t think they see eye-to-eye on anything,” said one senior administration official.
The strength of the secretary’s relationship with Trump has been a regular source of speculation. Tillerson reportedly referred to the president as a “moron” last year, and while the secretary held an impromptu press conference in the wake of that report, he did not outright deny having used the term.
Tillerson also went further than the president in condemning the Russian government for its alleged role in the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom earlier this month. Tillerson said Monday that the attempted murder “clearly came from Russia” and “certainly will trigger a response.” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to explicitly blame Russia at her briefing that day, though Trump on Tuesday said, “It sounds to me like they believe it was Russia, and I would certainly take that finding as fact.”
Trump has fired aides without warning before. Then-chief of staff Reince Priebus found out last summer that he had been replaced when Trump announced that John Kelly would be his new chief. Former FBI Director James Comey was alerted to his own firing last year by media reports, since he was not in Washington when a White House aide delivered Comey’s termination letter to the bureau’s Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters.
Pompeo’s favored status in the West Wing for months led administration officials to view him as Tillerson’s likely replacement. Trump was at one point expected to tap Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to run the CIA, but the White House hesitated to put another Senate seat on the table ahead of the 2018 midterms, according to a person close to Cotton. The potential offer also became less attractive to the senator, who would have been giving up a safe Senate seat to run the CIA for just two and a half years if Trump loses reelection.