President Donald Trump announced Tuesday he had ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and will replace him with Mike Pompeo, now the CIA director, ending the 14-month tenure of the nation’s chief diplomat, who repeatedly had found himself at odds with the White House on a variety of key foreign policy issues.
“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 mind-set, a different thinking.”
Tillerson found out he had been fired before dawn, shortly after his flight returned from a weeklong trip to Africa, said Steve Goldstein, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. There was no indication during the five-nation visit that Tillerson’s departure was imminent; Goldstein said Tuesday morning that the secretary had been expected to remain in office for the foreseeable future.
The president did not personally call Tillerson, and Goldstein said he did not know how the chief diplomat learned he had been fired.
Trump announced his decision on Twitter.
The move caught even the White House staff by surprise. Just the day before, a White House spokesman berated a reporter for suggesting 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 Tuesday morning, a senior administration official said Trump decided now to replace Tillerson to have a new team in place before talks with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader he plans to meet by 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 would need confirmation by the Senate to take the positions.
Tillerson says he is delegating his responsibilities at the end of the workday Tuesday to Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan.
Speaking to reporters hours after being fired, Tillerson says he will be formally stepping down from his post at the end of the month.
Tillerson called for an orderly transition to Pompeo and encouraged State Department employees to remain focused on their jobs.
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.
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, a former congressman, 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.
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.
Tillerson, a former chief executive of the oil giant Exxon Mobil, had once been viewed as an intriguing, if unorthodox, Cabinet choice. He had deep experience with Middle Eastern potentates and knew President Vladimir Putin of Russia through Exxon’s extensive efforts to explore for oil in Russia.
But the early enthusiasm for bringing a business sensibility to the State Department faded fast, as Tillerson seemed overwhelmed by the diplomatic challenges before him and isolated by career foreign service officers whom he often froze out of the most important debates.
His profound disagreements with the president on policy appeared to be his undoing: Tillerson wanted to remain part of the Paris climate accord; Trump decided to leave it. Tillerson supported the continuation of the Iran nuclear deal; Trump loathed the deal as “an embarrassment to the United States.” And Tillerson believed in dialogue to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis, but Trump repeatedly threatened military options.
Veteran diplomats said they could not remember a time when a president so regularly undermined his secretary of state so brazenly in the midst of a tense situation. Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who served many Republican presidents, last fall urged Tillerson to quit.
“Rex Tillerson has been dealt a bad hand by the Potus & has played it badly,” Haass wrote in a post on Twitter, using the acronym for president of the United States. “For both reasons he cannot be effective SecState & should resign.”
Veteran diplomats, who had seen in the gravelly voiced Tillerson a man of stature, experience and great wealth whom they hoped the president would respect and heed, eventually turned against him as he expressed more interest in shrinking the department than in expanding U.S. influence.
The turning point for Tillerson came when NBC News reported 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 erupted the next morning and denigrated the effort on Twitter by saying Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.”
“Save your energy Rex,” he added, “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.
Part of the reason for Trump’s eruption then 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 ousting, 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.
A poor relationship with Trump
Tillerson had some successes, including the growing international isolation of North Korea and improved ties between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. But he is likely to go down as among the least successful secretaries of state in history, and one big reason was his poor management of his relationship with Trump.
Although Tillerson spent his first months on the job getting to know Trump at lunches, dinners and White House get-togethers, the two never established a comfortable rapport.
Once the head of the Boy Scouts of America, Tillerson was outraged when the president spoke to the Boy Scouts in July and turned it into a political event. When Trump declined to denounce white nationalists who paraded in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, Tillerson made it clear Trump “speaks for himself” – not his secretary of state.
The growing distance between the men was on clear display during Trump’s trip to Asia in November, when Tillerson visited the prison that once housed Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is a frequent critic of the president.
But perhaps the most puzzling part of Tillerson’s tenure was his poor oversight of the State Department. As a former top business executive, his managerial skills were thought to be his chief asset.
But he failed to quickly pick a trusted team of leaders, left many critical departments without direction and all but paralyzed crucial decision-making in the department.
He approved one global conclave in Washington just eight days before the event was to start, ensuring that few leaders from around the world were able to attend. He rarely sat for comprehensive briefings with many of his top diplomats and often failed to consult the State Department’s experts on countries before visiting.
Foreign diplomats – starting with the British and the French – said Tillerson neither returned phone calls nor, with much advance warning, set up meetings with his counterparts. Strategic dialogues with many nations, including nuclear weapons powers like Pakistan, were ended without explanation.
The State Department’s policymaking process devolved into conversations between Tillerson and a lone top aide, neither of whom had much experience or knowledge about many of the countries they discussed.
Tillerson became so isolated that even top administration officials like Pompeo and allies like Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state whose recommendation was crucial to his selection, had trouble penetrating a phalanx of staff to speak to him directly.
“The relationship between top management and the bulk of the State Department was toxic,” said Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, a former senior diplomat and fellow at the Washington Institute who once worked with Tillerson. “And that was a total mystery because the people at the State Department would work for the devil if he is advancing American interests, which Mr. Tillerson was.”