Trump says Tillerson’s out
Pompeo next up; female deputy picked to head CIA
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he has ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and plans to nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him as the nation’s top diplomat, shaking up his national-security team as it prepares for delicate outreach including talks with North Korea.
It was an abrupt end — after months of speculation — to a rocky tenure for a former oil executive who never meshed with the president who hired him. Tillerson clashed repeatedly with the White House staff and broke publicly with Trump on issues ranging from the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the U.S. response to Russia’s cyber-aggression.
Pompeo, a former tea party congressman, had forged a close relationship with the president and is viewed as being more in sync with Trump’s “America first” credo.
“We were not really thinking the same,” Trump told reporters at the White House, explaining his decision to replace Tillerson. He added: “Really, it was a different mindset, a different thinking.”
The president announced his decision on Twitter.
At the State Department on Tuesday afternoon, Tillerson said the president had called him from Air Force One just after noon — more than three hours after Trump tweeted the news of his firing to Trump’s 49 million followers — to inform him of the
dismissal. Tillerson said he planned to immediately step aside from his post, turning over all responsibilities by the end of the day to John Sullivan, the deputy secretary of state.
His voice quivering, Tillerson thanked career diplomats for their “honesty and integrity” and the American people for “acts of kindness,” but he did not thank Trump or praise Trump’s policies.
“I’ll now return to private life, as a private citizen, as a proud American, proud of the opportunity I had to serve my country,” Tillerson said. He took no questions before leaving the briefing room.
Some of the circumstances of the firing remained in dispute.
White House officials said that, as Tillerson traveled through Africa last week, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly called to wake him up in the wee hours there Saturday to alert him that Trump had decided to replace him. Trump had told his chief of staff that he wanted to announce that he was replacing Tillerson on Twitter. Kelly urged him to hold off.
Kelly then suggested that Tillerson return to Washington as soon as possible. Tillerson cut his trip short Monday.
But a top State Department spokesman offered a different version of events — and was swiftly fired for contradicting the White House.
Steve Goldstein, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, had told reporters that Kelly told Tillerson only to expect a presidential tweet, not that he would be fired.
Goldstein’s dismissal, which came just before he was scheduled to brief reporters about the shake-up, was confirmed by a State Department official. West Wing officials had accused him in recent weeks of privately criticizing White House decisions to reporters. Asked Tuesday about the accusation, Goldstein said: “I spoke for the secretary of state. That was part of my role as the undersecretary.”
Tillerson’s firing caught even the White House staff by surprise. Just the day before, a White House spokesman berated a reporter for suggesting that there was any kind of split between Tillerson and the White House because of disparate comments on Russian responsibility for a poison attack in Britain.
But a senior administration official said Trump decided to replace Tillerson now to have a new team in place before coming talks with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader he plans to meet before May. The president also wanted a new chief diplomat for various ongoing trade negotiations.
At the CIA, Pompeo will be replaced by the current deputy director, Gina Haspel, who will be the first woman to head the spy agency. Both she and Pompeo need confirmation by the Senate to take the positions.
HIGH ON POMPEO
Trump said Pompeo “has earned the praise of members in both parties by strengthening our intelligence gathering, modernizing our defensive and offensive capabilities, and building close ties with our friends and allies in the international intelligence community.”
“I have gotten to know Mike very well over the past 14 months, and I am confident he is the right person for the
job at this critical juncture,” the president continued, in a statement distributed by the White House. “He will continue our program of restoring America’s standing in the world, strengthening our alliances, confronting our adversaries, and seeking the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Pompeo has become a favorite of Trump’s, impressing the president with his engaging approach during morning intelligence briefings. But he also, at times, has been at odds with the president — including agreeing with a CIA assessment about Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections.
As CIA director, Pompeo said there is “a long history of Russian efforts to influence the United States and conduct influence operations against the United States.”
“He’s made some good statements on Russia and acknowledging the obvious that they were involved, and I’m anxious to see if he sticks to those views” as secretary of state, said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Pompeo had engaged in tough talk about Russia long before the 2016 presidential election.
As a Kansas congressman, Pompeo said the U.S. and its allies should exploit Russian President Vladimir Putin’s weaknesses and enact sanctions “to keep him in his box.”
Trump has been criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike for speaking out about his admiration for Putin and repeatedly rejecting the intelligence community’s analysis of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. And he has blasted special prosecutor Robert
Mueller’s investigation into allegations that his campaign colluded with the Kremlin during the election.
Mike McFaul, who served as ambassador to Russia from 2012-14, said Pompeo might be able to use his close relationship with Trump to get the president on board with his administration’s own policy.
“What we have seen on record suggests he sees the nature of the threat,” he said. “But whether he has the power to convince Trump of that, I just don’t know.”
Some Democrats praised Pompeo’s long-standing views on Russia on Tuesday but worried that he won’t stand firm as he becomes one of Trump’s top aides.
“Tillerson’s successor must approach the grave threat of Russian foreign aggression with the seriousness and urgency that it demands,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader. “Director Pompeo has stated he has ‘every expectation’ Russia will attack our democracy again. America must be ready.”
In a Twitter post, Pelosi warned that the turnover at the top of the State Department had diminished the United States with foreign leaders.
In picking Haspel to succeed Pompeo at the CIA, Trump opted for continuity rather than bringing in an outsider. At one point last fall, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, one of the president’s closest Republican allies on Capitol Hill, had been tentatively tapped as the front-runner to run the agency if Pompeo moved up, but the idea later faded.
Cotton on Tuesday called Pompeo, a fellow veteran and Harvard Law School graduate, “an outstanding selection” for the secretary of state job.
“Mike’s deep understanding of world affairs, his cleareyed view of the threats to our national security, and his key relationships with world leaders make him an excellent choice to be our top diplomat,” the Republican from Dardanelle said in a statement.
Cotton said he would support the nomination of Pompeo as well as that of Haspel.
Tillerson has been out of favor with Trump for months but had resisted being pushed out. His distance from Trump’s inner circle was clear last week when the president accepted an invitation to meet with Kim, to Tillerson’s surprise.
The turning point for Tillerson came before that, when NBC News reported last fall that he had called the president a “moron,” leading him to take the extraordinary step of holding a news conference to affirm his support for Trump and insist that he had never considered resigning.
During a trip to Beijing in September, Tillerson told reporters that he already had “a couple, three” lines into North Korea to get communication started with the United States. Trump denigrated the effort on Twitter the next morning by saying Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rock-
“Save your energy Rex,” he said, adding, “we’ll do what has to be done!”
Trump later said he wished his secretary of state were tougher. The Chinese were left to wonder why Trump sent an emissary whose message the president did not believe in.
Another reason for Trump’s anger at the time was that Tillerson’s suggestion of secret talks with North Korea surprised President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, who called the White House to complain, according to people with knowledge of the exchange.
That Tillerson failed to take into account Seoul’s possible reaction was one of several embarrassing stumbles, arising from his own inexperience and decision to insulate himself from the department’s diplomatic corps.
With his ouster, Tillerson joins a long list of Trump administration appointees who have left or been fired, including the president’s first national security adviser, chief of staff, chief strategist, press secretary, two White House communications directors, and secretary of health and human services.
On Tuesday, Trump emphatically rejected talk of chaos in his year-old administration.
“I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want,” he said.
Information for this article was contributed by Peter Baker, Gardiner Harris and Mark Landler of The New York Times; by Ashley Parker, Philip Rucker, John Hudson, Carol B. Leonnig, Robert Costa, Josh Dawsey, Karen DeYoung, Carol Morello and Brian Murphy of The Washington Post; by Anita Kumar, Lindsay Wise, Emma Dumain, William Douglas, Greg Gordon, Tom Hart, Peter Stone and Hunter Woodall of the Tribune News Service; by Tracy Wilkinson and Brian Bennett of the Los Angeles Times; by Josh Lederman, Zeke Miller, Matthew Lee, Jill Colvin, Jonathan Lemire, Lisa Moscaro and Ken Thomas of The Associated Press; and by Frank E. Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
“We disagreed on things,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said of President Donald Trump during a farewell news conference Tuesday at the State Department.