After 14 months of private tensions and public disputes, President Trump on Tuesday ousted his beleaguered secretary of State, replacing Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo in a major shake-up of his national security and foreign policy teams.
Trump announced the reshuffle in a Twitter message about four hours after Tillerson cut short a weeklong trip to Africa and rushed back to Washington, arriving at 4 a.m. The two finally spoke by phone about noon after the White House and the State Department had issued conflicting versions of how and when Tillerson was fired.
Highlighting the clash with the White House, the State Department said Tillerson had not planned to resign and was “unaware of the reason” for his dismissal. The official who issued the rebuttal, one of Tillerson’s top aides, was then fired by the White House for contradicting its version of events.
In an emotional farewell in the State Department press room, Tillerson appeared somber and his voice quavered as he praised career diplomats and staff for their integrity and dedication, and thanked Defense Secretary James N. Mattis for a robust working partnership.
Tillerson notably did not thank Trump or mention him by name, although he said the administration had made progress with North Korea and Afghanistan. He said “much work remains” with Russia and China, adding a final barb: “Nothing is possible without allies and partners, though.”
The nation’s top diplomat said he would remain at the job until March 31, but would designate authority for running the State Department to Deputy Secretary John Sullivan. He said he is committed to ensuring “an orderly and smooth transition.”
Tillerson was blindsided last week when Trump abruptly decided to accept an invitation for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, an ambitious but risky diplomatic initiative that normally would involve immense State Department input.
Tillerson also has opposed Trump’s repeated vows to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear disarmament accord with Iran as early as mid-May unless it undergoes substantial revisions that Iran, and most U.S. allies, have rejected.
Speaking to reporters before he flew to San Diego for his first visit to California as president, Trump said he and Tillerson “disagreed on things,” citing the Iran nuclear deal.
“So we were not thinking the same,” Trump said. “With Mike Pompeo, we have a similar thought process."
The president said he wished Tillerson well. “I actually got on well with Rex, but it was a different mind-set."
Trump repeatedly praised Pompeo, saying “we’ve had a very good chemistry right from the beginning.”
Trump said he would nominate Gina Haspel, the CIA’s deputy director, to replace Pompeo as head of the nation’s chief spy service. If confirmed by the Senate, she will be the first woman to lead the agency as it faces complex new military and digital threats from Russia, China and other rivals and adversaries.
Haspel is likely to face tough questions during her Senate confirmation hearing about her role in one of the CIA’s darkest periods, the harsh interrogation — critics called it torture — of suspected terrorists in “black sites” overseas after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Pompeo is expected to win easy confirmation in the Senate after hearings next month. The Senate confirmed him as CIA director by a vote of 66 to 32 last year.
A West Point graduate from Kansas who served in Congress from 2011 to 2017, Pompeo said he was “deeply grateful” to Trump and that he looked “forward to representing him and the American people to the rest of the world to further America’s prosperity.”
Pompeo has savvy political skills that Tillerson lacks, said Michael Allen, who worked in the George W. Bush White House and advised the Trump transition.
“He can do media, he does the Hill, he does everything Tillerson didn't do,” Allen said. “Most of all, he has Trump's confidence.”
Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill generally applauded the move, suggesting that Pompeo could help Trump deal with foreign policy challenges if only because it would be clear that he spoke for the president, when Tillerson often didn’t.
“As director of the CIA, Mike has made contacts throughout the world and has come up with aggressive policies to defend our homeland,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “No one understands the threat posed by North Korea and Iran better than he does.”
Pompeo often briefed Trump in person in the Oval Office on crucial intelligence issues, and in recent weeks played a pivotal role in brokering messages from South Korean officials about a possible meeting with the North Korean leader.
A voice of moderation in an administration riven by chaos, Tillerson struggled to find common ground with Trump. He publicly challenged the president over his withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, his denigration of the NATO military alliance, his failure to confront Russian operations overseas, and other major foreign policy issues.
After Trump gave a harsh campaign-style speech to a Boy Scouts Jamboree in July, Tillerson reportedly called Trump a “moron” in a private meeting. Tillerson, a former national president of the Boy Scouts, later refused to deny the remark and it clearly incensed Trump.
Trump publicly mocked Tillerson in October for “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” although the president ultimately seized the chance to meet with the North Korean leader — but cut Tillerson out of the deliberations.
Still, Tillerson’s firing was brusque even by Trump’s standards. The White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, phoned Tillerson before dawn on Saturday in Nairobi, Kenya, and urged him to return to Washington as soon as possible, according to the White House.
Trump announced Tillerson’s dismissal on Twitter barely four hours after he landed in Washington from Abuja, Nigeria. The two had not spoken directly at that point.
Hours later, the White House also fired Steven Goldstein, whom Tillerson picked three months ago to serve as undersecretary of State for public affairs and diplomacy.
Goldstein had told reporters that Kelly had told Tillerson to expect a presidential tweet, not that he would be fired. That contradicted the White House version, which said Kelly had warned Tillerson he was being replaced.
Tillerson is only the third U.S. secretary of State to be fired. The most recent was Alexander Haig, who was forced out in 1982 after his brash leadership caused problems with President Reagan.
Tillerson’s taciturn style was the opposite of brash. But he clashed with Trump over several key policy issues.
In addition to resisting Trump's effort to scrap the 2015 deal with Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions, he opposed Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to the divided city of Jerusalem. The plan has seemingly destroyed chances of a negotiated resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict for the short term.
And despite a record of high-stakes energy deals with Russian authorities in his former job as chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corp., Tillerson has voiced more public mistrust of Moscow than Trump has.
On Monday, Tillerson again departed from the White House position — denouncing Russia for a poison attack in Britain that targeted a former Russian spy, who has criticized President Vladimir Putin, and his daughter. More than 20 people, including first responders, were injured by the chemical agent.
The attack “clearly came from Russia” and will “trigger a response,” Tillerson said. Earlier in the day, the White House had conspicuously declined to join British officials in blaming Russia for the attack.
For much of his 14-month tenure, Tillerson traveled the world doing damage control, trying to placate allies in Europe and elsewhere who felt alienated or confused by Trump’s erratic policy pronouncements and threats. His trip to Africa was partly to mollify governments offended by Trump’s reported dismissal of immigrants from “shithole countries.”
Time after time, Tillerson had to explain to foreign allies what Trump has meant when he seemed to be insulting their countries. "The president's tweets don't define the policy," Tillerson said last month during a trip to Latin America, where Trump’s policies have roiled relations.
Even as he differed with Trump, Tillerson had few allies on Capitol Hill or among the diplomats and civil servants in the sprawling department he headed. Many in the foreign service saw him as aloof and distant as he pursued a plan to cut budgets, trim staff and reorganize the department’s bureaucracy.
His legacy in public service has few clear achievements. Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Tillerson leaves a "hobbled" State Department.
“The timing of this move also couldn’t be worse," Engel said. "Less than a week after announcing a summit with Kim Jong Un — the sort of engagement that will require a diplomatic full-court press — the president has let the world know that he’s throwing an already hollowed-out State Department into further disarray with a transition at the top. However much I may have disagreed with Secretary Tillerson, to push him out at this moment sends a terrible message to friends and adversaries all over the world."