WASHINGTON (TNS) — After 14 months of private tensions and public disputes, President Donald 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 so-called “black sites” overseas after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Pompeo is expected to win easy confirmation in the Senate after confirmation hearings next month. The Senate confirmed him as CIA director by a vote of 66-32 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.”