President Trump has ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and plans to nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him as the nation’s top diplomat, orchestrating a major change to his national security team amid delicate outreach such as possible talks with North Korea, White House officials said Tuesday.
Trump last Friday asked Tillerson to step aside, and the embattled diplomat cut short a trip to Africa on Monday to return to Washington.
Tension between Trump and Tillerson has simmered for many months, but the president and his top diplomat reached a breaking point over the past week, officials said.
The reason for the latest rift was unclear, but Trump and Tillerson have often appeared at odds over policies such as the nuclear deal with Iran and the tone of U.S. diplomacy.
A spokesman for Tillerson said the secretary of state “had every intention of staying” in his job and was “unaware of the reason” for his firing.
Tillerson cut short his trip to Africa on Monday to return to Washington. “I felt like, look, I just need to get back,” he told reporters aboard his plane home. The White House, however, had told him the previous Friday that he would be dismissed, according to two administration officials.
The news was not conveyed in person by Trump.
At the White House on Tuesday, Trump said the move had been considered for “a long time.”
“We disagreed on things . . . the Iran deal,” Trump told reporters. “So we were not thinking the same. With Mike Pompeo, we have a similar thought process.”
Trump selected Gina Haspel — the deputy director at the CIA — to succeed Pompeo at the CIA. She would become the first woman to run the spy agency.
Both would need to be confirmed by the Senate at a time when the closely divided chamber has stalled on confirming dozens of Trump nominees.
In a statement issued to The Washington Post, Trump praised both Pompeo and Haspel.
“I am proud to nominate the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo, to be our new Secretary of State,” Trump said. “Mike graduated first in his class at West Point, served with distinction in the U.S. Army, and graduated with Honors from Harvard Law School. He went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives with a proven record of working across the aisle.”
The president continued: “Gina Haspel, the Deputy Director of the CIA, will be nominated to replace Director Pompeo and she will be the CIA’s first-ever female director, a historic milestone. Mike and Gina have worked together for more than a year, and have developed a great mutual respect.”
Trump also had words of praise for Tillerson: “Finally, I want to thank Rex Tillerson for his service. A great deal has been accomplished over the last fourteen months, and I wish him and his family well.”
© Jonathan Ernst/Pool via AP U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson boards his plane to depart at the end of a five-country swing through Africa from Abuja, Nigeria, Monday, March 12, 2018.
A spokesman for Tillerson said the secretary of state has not spoken directly with Trump about the move.
“The secretary had every intention of staying because of the critical progress made in national security and other areas,” Steve Goldstein, undersecretary of public diplomacy for the State Department, said in a statement.
“He will miss his colleagues greatly at the Department of State, and the foreign ministers he’s worked with throughout the world,” Goldstein continued. “The secretary did not speak to the president, and is unaware of the reason. He is grateful for the opportunity to serve, and believes strongly that public service is a noble calling.”
The president has long clashed with Tillerson, who he believes is “too establishment” in his thinking. Trump felt it was important to make the change now, as he prepares for possible high-stakes talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as well as upcoming trade negotiations, three White House officials said.
“I am deeply grateful to President Trump for permitting me to serve as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and for this opportunity to serve as Secretary of State,” Pompeo said in a statement. “His leadership has made America safer and I look forward to representing him and the American people to the rest of the world to further America’s prosperity. Serving alongside the great men and women of the CIA, the most dedicated and talented public servants I have encountered, has been one of the great honors of my life.”
Haspel said in a statement that she was excited about her promotion.
“After 30 years as an officer of the Central Intelligence Agency, it has been my honor to serve as its Deputy Director alongside Mike Pompeo for the past year,” she said. “I am grateful to President Trump for the opportunity, and humbled by his confidence in me, to be nominated to be the next Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.”
On the flight from Nigeria, Tillerson appeared to break with the White House in his assessment of the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain. He singled out Russia as responsible for the attack, echoing the finger-pointing of the British government.
“It came from Russia,” Tillerson said, according to the Associated Press. “I cannot understand why anyone would take such an action. But this is a substance that is known to us and does not exist widely.”
Earlier Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders condemned the attack as “reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible,” and expressed solidarity with Britain, but would not say whether the United States believes Russia was behind it.
Tillerson was especially frustrated when Trump last Thursday unilaterally agreed to the meeting with Kim while Tillerson was traveling abroad in Africa, according to officials familiar with his thinking.
Tillerson had long expressed interest in a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff with North Korea, and was upset to have been left totally out of the loop when Trump decided to move forward, according to a White House official.
Foggy Bottom was also acutely aware — and chagrined — that when Pompeo appeared on television shows this past Sunday to explain the North Korea developments, he did not mention Tillerson.
Pompeo long has been mentioned as Tillerson’s most likely replacement. As CIA director, the former Republican lawmaker from Kansas developed a warm relationship with Trump, often delivering the President’s Daily Brief to Trump in person and racing over to the West Wing at a moment’s notice to field the president’s queries on a range of topics.
Last November, the White House readied a plan to replace Tillerson with Pompeo, and Trump seriously considered making the move but was persuaded to keep the current team in place.
Pompeo often is found in a host of meetings that do not necessarily deeply involve his agency, simply because Trump likes him, said one White House official.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) was initially mentioned as a replacement for Pompeo, but Trump opted to promote from within by elevating Haspel.
Tillerson’s exit had been so widely expected that the rumors were given a nickname: Rexit. Speculation about his ouster has come in waves, including in October after NBC News reported that Tillerson had called Trump a “moron.”
Tillerson, 65, spent his career at ExxonMobil, climbing the ranks at the oil giant to become chief executive officer, where he cut deals across the Middle East and in Mexico. Having never worked in government before being named secretary of state, he struggled to adapt to Washington’s ways and the administration’s culture of backstabbing.
Tillerson emerged as one of the strongest voices in the administration critical of Russia. For months, he has been saying Russia clearly meddled in the 2016 U.S. election, even as Trump shied away from any critical remarks.
Trump seemed to resent pressure to stay the course on such issues as China’s trade practices, the war in Afghanistan and the Iran nuclear deal, those people said.
Tillerson pushed Trump to preserve the Iran nuclear deal, at least for now, with a July pronouncement that Iran was meeting its end of the bargain. Trump said in a Wall Street Journal interview that he regretted making that determination and strongly suggested he would not go along with another such certification of compliance due in October.
Although Tillerson supported the approach to the war in Afghanistan that Trump announced last week, he felt no need to frame U.S. goals in the same maximal terms as the commander in chief. Where Trump proclaimed on Aug. 21 that “our troops will fight to win,” Tillerson laid out a much more modest agenda.
Josh Dawsey, John Hudson and Carol Morello contributed to this report.