U.S. President Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday and said he would nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him, ending Tillerson’s difficult tenure by tweeting an ouster that had been long expected and yet was shocking in its abruptness.
In a tweet Tuesday, Trump thanked Tillerson, 65, and said he has nominated Gina Haspel to replace Pompeo. If confirmed, Haspel, currently deputy director of the intelligence agency, would become its first female director.
Speaking to reporters later on the White House lawn, Trump said he made the decision to replace Tillerson “by myself,” and added that Tillerson will be “much happier now.”
“We disagreed on things,” Trump continued, a diplomatic version of a difficult relationship with his top diplomat that included reports that Tillerson had called the president a “moron” in meetings with other officials.
Trump also mentioned differences over how to handle the Iran agreement, which he wanted to withdraw from. “So we were not really thinking the same.”
The reshuffle comes at a time of intense turnover within Trump’s administration that has alarmed those both in and out of the White House. Top economic adviser Gary Cohn announced his resignation last week, not long after communications director Hope Hicks and staff secretary Rob Porter both departed near the start of Trump’s second year in office.
For Trump, the shift comes at a critical time for several key foreign policy priorities, including a decision on whether to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 Iran deal that Pompeo has called “disastrous.” Tillerson had long pushed Trump to remain in the agreement and had been pursuing a delicate strategy with European allies and others to try to improve or augment it to Trump’s liking.
North Korea diplomacy looms
It also comes amid a dramatic diplomatic opening with North Korea, with Trump set to hold a historic meeting with leader Kim Jong-un in May.
Pressuring North Korea with sanctions and other isolation measures had been a top Tillerson priority, and he had been one of the administration’s more vocal advocates for holding talks in some form with the North. When Trump ultimately accepted Kim’s invitation for a meeting, Tillerson was in Ethiopia, though he said he spoke with Trump about it shortly before it was announced.
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!
Trump publicly undercut Tillerson’s diplomatic initiatives numerous times, including on Monday when Tillerson’s comments about Russia appeared to be at odds with those of the White House.
Trump and Tillerson, who had no diplomatic or political experience before becoming secretary of state, have diverged on policy numerous times, including over North Korea and Russia. Tillerson sharply criticized Russia over the poisonings in England of a former spy and his daughter, directly blaming Moscow after White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stopped short of doing so.
Tillerson learned of his firing by tweet
Trump’s early morning announcement took the State Department by surprise, barely four hours after Tillerson returned prematurely from a trip to Africa and just as officials had been preparing yet again to dispute rumours of his demise.
The circumstances behind the firing were unclear.
Two White House officials said Tillerson was told he was out on Friday. But undersecretary of state Steve Goldstein said Tillerson “did not speak to the president and is unaware of the reason.” He added that the former Exxon Mobil CEO “had every intention of staying” in the job because he felt he was making critical progress in national security.
The State Department said Tillerson only learned of his termination when he read Trump’s tweet on Tuesday morning. Two senior department officials said Tillerson received a call from John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, on Friday, but was only told that there might be a presidential tweet that would concern him.
Kelly didn’t tell Tillerson what the tweet might say or when it might actually publish, according to the official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.
Nomination hearing in April
Republican Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the senate foreign relations committee — the body that will hold confirmation hearings for Pompeo before he can step into the role of secretary of state — said Tillerson’s firing also caught him by surprise.
Corker has been one of Tillerson’s most vocal supporters on Capitol Hill, but acknowledged “there’s been tensions” between the secretary of state and Trump.
But he says, it had seemed “that they had learned to work together a little bit better” in recent months. Corker said he didn’t know what precipitated the firing.
The committee expects to hold nomination hearings for Pompeo in April, according to Corker.