The change of Trump’s top diplomat comes as the US is engaging in delicate, high-stakes negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear program and the prospect of Trump meeting Kim Jong Un this spring.
Speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump said he respected Tillerson’s “intellect” and said he “got along well with Rex.”
“I think Rex will be much happier now,” Trump said.
In tweeting the announcement earlier Tuesday morning, Trump announced that Gina Haspel would be the next CIA director.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters that Trump asked Tillerson to step aside.
Trump “thought it was the right time for the transition with the upcoming North Korea talks and various trade negotiations,” a senior administration official said, adding that Trump asked Tillerson to step aside on Friday.
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
Tillerson did not speak to Trump and is unaware of the reason behind his firing, Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy Steve Goldstein said.
Trump has wanted Pompeo as his secretary of state for months now, and the White House began planning for him to take the job last fall, sources told CNN.
Trump’s anger at Tillerson after it leaked that his secretary of state called him “a moron” never subsided, and many in the White House saw their differences as irreconcilable.
Tillerson had few, if any, allies in the West Wing. Though chief of staff John Kelly was initially on his side when he took over, he eventually grew weary of defending him — especially after the “moron” remark, which Kelly saw as insubordination on Tillerson’s part.
Sources close to the President say it was clear Tillerson didn’t support Trump. They say Tillerson wanted to handle foreign policy his own way, without the President. Trump didn’t feel that Tillerson backed him, a source told CNN.
Tillerson’s departure comes just as the Trump administration embarks on its most difficult and ambitious foreign policy goal to date — engaging the nuclear armed North Korean regime. Trump is set to meet leader Kim Jong Un by the end of May.
It was a rocky tenure for Tillerson. Since his swearing in on February 1, 2017, Tillerson had to contend with a President who publicly undercut him as well as tension with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who effectively ran a shadow State Department on Middle East issues. There was also competition from US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and a litany of complaints from diplomats, State Department staff and others in Washington that he was running a deeply dysfunctional agency.
Tillerson’s cost cutting has lead to the agency’s senior tiers “being depleted at a dizzying speed,” and “a decapitation of its leadership ranks,” Amb. Barbara Stephenson, president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), a union for US foreign service personnel, wrote in her group’s publication.
“There is simply no denying the warning signs that point to mounting threats to our institution — and to the global leadership that depends on us,” Stephenson wrote.
Tillerson aggressively pushed back against such criticisms in a November 28 appearance, portraying it as an insult to State Department staff. “I’m offended on their behalf when people say somehow we don’t have a State Department that functions,” Tillerson said. “I can tell you it’s functioning very well from my perspective.”
Tillerson on thin ice for months
But a steady drip of negative news, and reports of Tillerson’s alleged resentment over Ivanka Trump leading a delegation to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in India in November, continued to undermine Tillerson.
His ouster was preceded by a painfully public airing of his troubles with the President, heightened when one lawmaker faulted Trump for his tendency to “publicly castrate” the secretary of state. That exchange forced Tillerson, when asked about the comment by CNN’s Jake Tapper, to declare, “I checked. I’m fully intact.”
The lawmaker, Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations committee, told The Washington Post last fall that Trump repeatedly neutered Tillerson with tweets that undermined or flatly contradicted policies he was pursuing. That, Corker said, shut down options for the US and damaged Tillerson’s efforts to peacefully resolve tensions with North Korea.
By that point, in mid-October, an administration official was telling CNN that Tillerson was on thin ice, even as the President was publicly declaring he had confidence in his top diplomat.
“It certainly isn’t a good relationship and its problems that have been building,” the official said of Tillerson’s fate in the Trump administration. “I think everyone is trying to stick it out for a variety of selfish reasons. But not for the same reasons.”
The castration episode followed an extraordinary October 4 public statement in which Tillerson stressed his commitment to his job as secretary of state, but didn’t definitively deny an NBC report that he had called Trump a “moron.”
That report also detailed Tillerson’s “fury” about the ways Trump has undermined him publicly on several foreign policy initiatives and his thoughts about resigning.
Calling the story “erroneous” during his remarks, Tillerson pointed the finger at “some who try to sow dissension” to undermine the President’s agenda and said he has been asked “repeatedly” if he’s going to step down.
“For some reason, it continues to be misreported,” Tillerson complained. “There’s never been a consideration in my mind.”
The incident cost Tillerson the support of Kelly, a top White House official told CNN.
Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general who was once Tillerson’s fiercest defender in the West Wing, stopped defending him privately, fed up with the moron remark because he saw it as insubordination. As one official described it, he has grown weary of trying to defend the indefensible.
Even as Tillerson lost support in the White House, some lawmakers expressed concern about the prospect of his departure. Many saw Tillerson, along with Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H. R. McMaster, as a serious defender of US national security interests, as opposed to more ideological or inexperienced voices in the White House.
This story is breaking and will be updated.