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 team.
Trump announced the change in a Twitter message hours after Tillerson abruptly cut short a weeklong trip to Africa and returned to Washington at 4 a.m. Tuesday. But State Department officials said Tillerson did not speak to the president and only learned of his firing from Trump’s Twitter post.
In an unusual pushback that only highlighted the clash, the State Department made clear that Tillerson did not quit. It issued a statement that said he “had every intention of remaining,” and is “unaware of the reason” for his dismissal.
Tillerson also did not get advance warning last week when Trump abruptly decided to accept a surprise invitation for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the most ambitious diplomatic push of the Trump administration as it seeks to reduce nuclear tensions.
Speaking to reporters before he boarded Air Force One for his first visit to California as president, Trump said he and Tillerson “disagreed on things.”
“We’ve been talking about this for a long time,” Trump said, citing the Iran nuclear deal as one of their points of disagreement. Tillerson has urged Trump to stay in the landmark nuclear disarmament deal, but the president has vowed to withdraw by mid-May if it is not renegotiated.
“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’ll be speaking to Rex over a long period of time,” he added. “I actually got on well with Rex but it was a different mindset.”
In the tweet, Trump briefly thanked Tillerson for his service as the nation’s top diplomat and praised Pompeo, saying he would do a “fantastic job” as the country’s top diplomat.
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
Gina Haspel, the CIA’s deputy director, will replace Pompeo as head of the nation’s chief spy service. If confirmed, she will be the first woman to lead the agency as it faces new threats from Russia, China and other rivals and adversaries.
Tillerson clashed repeatedly with Trump during his 14 months at State and reportedly referred to Trump as a “moron” during a private meeting last year. Tillerson never confirmed or denied having made the remark, but it clearly reached Trump’s ears and incensed him.
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 holy 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 told reporters aboard his plane as he returned from Africa. Earlier in the day, the White House had conspicuously declined to join British officials in blaming Russia for the attack.
But 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.
Although Tillerson was repeatedly said to be considering stepping down last year, the State Department made clear Tuesday that Tillerson didn’t resign. It also suggested that Trump had fired him without cause.
“The Secretary had every intention of remaining because of the tangible progress made on critical national security issues,” it said. “He established and enjoyed relationships with his counterparts. He will miss his colleagues at the Department of State and enjoyed working together with the Department of Defense in an uncommonly robust relationship.”
It added, “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. We wish Secretary-Designate Pompeo well.”
Pompeo, a former congressman, has 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.”
Pompeo often briefs Trump in person in the Oval Office on critical intelligence issues, and over the last several weeks has played a pivotal role in brokering messages from South Korean officials about a possible meeting with North Korean leader.
Tillerson was blindsided in Africa when the White House announced that Trump had agreed to meet with Kim. Indeed, hours earlier, Tillerson had cautioned reporters that the U.S. and North Korea were still a long way from any negotiations.
His prediction may prove true since North Korea has not publicly responded to Trump’s acceptance of Kim’s invitation to meet, and officials have yet to set a date, location or agenda for a summit.
Tillerson, long a moderating voice in a chaotic administration, returned at 4 a.m. Tuesday from Africa, where he was traveling and as he struggled to defend his role after having been excluded from Trump’s decision to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Tillerson then stressed he was in close contact and coordination with Trump regularly. But, in fact, Tillerson clashed with Trump on numerous issues. He argued for sticking to the landmark nuclear agreement with Iran, which Trump is threatening to abandon, and for remaining a part of the Paris climate accord. He opposed Trump’s decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel and has routinely criticized Putin when Trump has refused to do so.
Time after time, Tillerson has had to explain to foreign allies what Trump has meant when he seemed to be insulting their countries, such as during a trip last month through Latin America and the just-concluded mission in Africa. “The president’s tweets don’t define the policy,” Tillerson said.
The Texas oilman and former CEO of ExxonMobil was a man of few words and stood in contrast to Trump’s more flamboyant manner.
“The president and I are pretty different individuals in terms of our management style, in terms of our communication style,” Tillerson told reporters traveling with him in Latin America.
“It doesn’t mean one is right, one is wrong; one is better, one is worse,” he added. “But we’re very different, and the way I process information and come to decisions is different from the way he does.”
Staff writer David Lauter contributed to this report.