Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Fires Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; Sources: Trump's Personal Aide McEntee Fired, Escorted From White House; State Department Official: Tillerson Learned of Firing from Trump's Tweet. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired March 13, 2018 - 10:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world.

The breaking news is the biggest departure to date from the Trump administration. And this one was not voluntary. The president has fired his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in favor of his current CIA Director Mike Pompeo. The president says that he and Rex Tillerson disagreed on things while he and Pompeo see the world the same way.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I worked with Mike Pompeo now for quite some time. Tremendous energy, tremendous intellect, we're always on the same wave length. The relationship has been very good and that's what I need as Secretary of State. I wish Rex Tillerson well.

Gina, by the way, who I know very well, who I've worked very closely, will be the first woman director of the CIA. She's an outstanding person who also I have gotten to know very well. So I've gotten to know a lot of people very well over the last year and I'm really at a point where we're getting very close to having the cabinet and other things that I want.

But I think Mike Pompeo will be a truly great Secretary of State. I have total confidence in him. And as far as Rex Tillerson is concerned, I very much appreciate his commitment to his service and I wish him well. We got along actually quite well, but we disagreed on things. When you look at the Iran deal, I think it is terrible, I guess he thought it was OK. I wanted to either break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently. So we were not really thinking the same.


BERMAN: You heard it right there. CNN's Kaitlan Collins at the White House for more on the thinking about why and when and how this happened. KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, John, this firing has been a very long time coming. The White House first started planning to put Mike Pompeo in as Secretary of State last fall and it just took until now for it to actually be put into motion. But the president said there that he and Rex Tillerson disagreed on policy issues like the Iran deal. Clearly they were on very different pages because last week the president says he did not include Rex Tillerson on those discussions to meet with North Korea, that he largely made those decisions on his own. And as you know, last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just days before -- the day that the president announced he was going to meet with North Korea was saying that negotiations with North Korea were a long time off. So clearly they disagreed on policy there.

But, John, this was also a very personal issue as well. The president says that he and Rex Tillerson got along, but that is just simply not the case from what my sources inside of the West Wing tell me. The two men actually strongly disagreed with each other, they were at odds, their personalities and the way that they spoke during briefings and meetings did not get along.

And also, as you remember, Rex Tillerson referred to the president as a moron last summer during a meeting at the Pentagon. And the president knew about it at the time. He was told by someone that that had happened. But then that didn't leak until later on, in the fall.

And that's when it was out in the press. The president became incredibly frustrated with Rex Tillerson and his anger over Tillerson calling him a moron never subsided. So it is important to keep that in mind. This was much more than just a policy disagreement here between the president and the Secretary of State. It was also a very personal disagreement. But that last comment there about how he thinks he almost has his cabinet the way he wanted is very telling, John, it makes you wonder who could be on the chopping block next.

BERMAN: Indeed. And we know on the cabinet level official but we do know there was another sort of mysterious departure from the White House and sudden, the president's personal assistant. What have you learned there, Kaitlan?

COLLINS: Yes. That's right, John. This news actually broke while we were on the south lawn waiting for the president to board Marine One to head to California. And it is very stunning news, not just outside of the White House, not just to those of us who cover the White House, but also to people inside the West Wing and that's the president's personal aide Johnny McEntee was fired from the White House and escorted from the White House grounds yesterday.

We are told by sources that it was something to do with his background check. There is still a lot of -- no clarity surrounding exactly what issues came up in his background check because this is someone who has been very close to the president over the last 14 months that they have been in office, not even just that. But he was a near constant presence here in the West Wing, almost always by the president's side and also very close to the president's family. So, he was one of those few aides who actually go over to the residence at times, very, very few people who do that. So, he was very close to the president. But they have announced he is joining those Trump re-election efforts. So, just a lot of confusion surrounding that aide, but it has stunned even people inside the White House here, John.

[10:05:10] BERMAN: We'll find out more about that. All right, Kaitlan Collins at the White House.

The major breaking news today is a huge take up in the national security leadership of this country, Rex Tillerson out as Secretary of State.

Let's talk more about this. I'm joined by Michelle Kosinski, CNN senior diplomatic correspondent and Elise Labott, global affairs correspondent. You know, and Michelle, there has been an official statement released by a State Department official here which is extraordinary about how the Secretary of State found out about this and the fact that he still wanted to stay on the job.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I mean the fact that you can just feel the scrambling and the shock over this within the building. Not to say that this wasn't a long time in coming. These rumors have been out there since before Christmas time when there were people close to the president saying they were waiting for Tillerson to punch his card and leave the building. Well, something happened, they mended their fences for at least the time being.

And then today the stunning announcement, so the first word out of the State Department was that the secretary had every intention of staying, because of critical progress he feels has been made within the realm of national security. And the State Department that he didn't speak to the president and is unaware of the reason. I think that's key, just the way that he found out about this. I mean when we say how did he find out then, if he didn't speak to the president, and he doesn't know why he's been fired. The first thing I was told was he found out the same way everybody else found out.

That's the kind of indignity that Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon, has had to deal with, within the administration. I mean, the list is very long. When you think about after it emerged that he had referred to the president as a moron in a meeting. He was forced by the White House to give this statement, declaring his belief, that President Trump is a smart guy, and that he respects them and that they work well together. I mean to watch this happening at the time was excruciating and unprecedented. And to have -- the Secretary of State repeatedly undercut by president I think you look at the situation for the past several months and you just think how long is this really going to last. But there is still the timing element of surprise that the White House so relishes. Just yesterday, a senior State Department official was telling us that Secretary Tillerson is the Secretary of stay. And he has all these big plans. And two days ago they were at pains to tell us how involved he had been in the whole North Korea announcement. BERMAN: Secretary of stay is now gone, Michelle Kosinski. And in terms of being out of the loop, the president made clear this morning that he did not consult with Rex Tillerson in any way on his decision to meet with Kim Jong-un. He made that crystal clear today. The president said I just didn't see the need.

KOSINSKI: Exactly.

BERMAN: Elise Labott, you have more exactly on how the president -- the Secretary of State, outgoing Secretary of State, found out about all of this, shedding some light on what Michelle means by he found out the same way we all did.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: John, he found out as a lot of us do about the president's decisions in a tweet. Found out this morning, got back from a weeklong trip to Africa which he actually cut short. We'll have to find out a little bit about how much he knew privately over the weekend. But he cut his trip short. Aides said that he had a lot of work to do on the North Korea issue on this crisis between U.S. allies, on tariffs, he has some Hill testimony later in the week. So he cut his trip short about a half a day, got in about 4:00 a.m. this morning. And aides are saying that he was never officially notified by the White House that he found out this morning in a presidential tweet.

And you remember I spoke to Secretary Tillerson earlier this year. And he told me that he was planning on staying throughout at least the year. I said has the president given you any indication that your job is on the line? He said, no. Not whatsoever. And this kind of secretary of stay has been, you know, floating around the 7th floor suite of offices for some time. He did think that he kind of weathered this storm as he told me. He was starting to get the hang of how to, you know, help and advice this very mercurial and very unique president and I think Secretary Tillerson thought that he was founding his footing.

BERMAN: All right, guys. Thanks so much. Really fascinating reporting here, joining me now, CNN military and diplomatic analyst, former State Department spokesman retired Rear Admiral John Kirby, also joined by CNN's chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto.

Admiral, you know, I shudder to think about the position you would be in if you were at the State Department as the spokesman right now, trying to explain how the secretary, you know, may have found out about this on Twitter this morning.

[10:10:03] Leave that aside. Let's talk about the significant national security implications to this move. Rex Tillerson, we know, opposed pulling out of the Iran deal, the president seems to be for it, now Rex Tillerson is gone. On North Korea, the secretary seemed to have a slightly different view than the president, the president agreed to meet with Kim Jong-un without even consulting the secretary. This will represent a shift on important issues.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: No question it will. And in Mike Pompeo, one can assume that the president is getting a Secretary of State more in line with his thinking. And look, that's the president's right. He deserves to have cabinet officers who espouse his world view and his policy formulation process and then go and articulate it.

There is two ways of looking at this, John. I mean to foreign leaders, this might be a good move because Tillerson was never really seen as a reputable credible voice on behalf of President Trump. Because they knew, everybody knew that there were differences of opinion on policy between the two men and that Secretary Tillerson didn't really speak for Donald Trump.

Now you'll have a Secretary of State who will probably have -- be much more credible on the world stage. So that's a good thing, I think, for in terms of one voice for American policy. It is not such a good thing, I don't think, for our diplomats and the department of state, which was already bristling under Tillerson's sort of ham fisted management style, but under Mike Pompeo now. It is going to be a much more political department of state than it was under Rex Tillerson.

The other loser here in my view is the Pentagon. Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson had a great relationship, they were marching in unison. They were really to the degree you can give Trump credit for that pressure campaign on North Korea. That really belongs to Mattis and Tillerson who really kind of pushed that forward and Nikki Haley. And so now Secretary Mattis isn't going to have that same partnership. He'll find a way to work with Mike Pompeo, John, but it will be a different relationship for him.

BERMAN: Jim Sciutto is with us as well. And, Jim, the director to replace the nominee to replace Mike Pompeo at the CIA will be Deputy Director Gina Haskel, who's an intelligence lifer, respected by many inside this community, but also someone who has been a controversial figure in the past as well.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): No question. She was involved in one of the most difficult, controversial eras in the CIA, which was regarding the question of enhanced interrogation, in the words of some, torture in the words of others, and not only involved in directing that program, but also involved in an effort to cover it up, to destroy videos that documented the use of enhanced interrogation, torture. So that is an issue certain to come up at our confirmation hearing, but also one of substance and one that not all but many intelligence professionals take issue with because they're not happy with that period in the CIA's history and understandably so.

The other point I would make is this. Every other day we talk about instability, changes of personnel in the White House. So that is -- it is an interesting story, a question. Let's talk about the substance of it here. It is about the way this White House runs. This is the Secretary of State, the nation's highest diplomat the president just moments ago confirmed he did not consult on a decision to speak directly with the leader of North Korea, the most pressing national security diplomatic issue for this country. The president did not consult his Secretary of State, his most senior diplomatic adviser on that decision. That tells you something about how decisions are made in this White House and how power is concentrated at the top. That is key.

And then substantively going forward, Rex Tillerson was a moderating voice for this president on a number of issues. And the president again moments ago mentioned one of those, which was the Iran deal, the president made many public comments about tearing it up both during the campaign and since then. Rex Tillerson was -- and others wanted to advise the president on a -- on a less radical course. So that voice is gone.

Mike Pompeo, smart guy, graduated first in his class at West Point, served in Congress, ran the CIA, know his stuff, but also has been more deaf politically with this president, much more reluctant to disagree with the president in public, step out of line on issues such as Russia, the Russia investigation, the Iran deal, et cetera.

So as John Kirby was saying there, any more politically aligned White House, you might say. We don't know what advice Mike Pompeo gives in private to the president, maybe different from his public statement.

[10:15:01] He may push back on the president in private more than he does in public. But at least in public, it is a different situation. You saw an example of that in the last (INAUDIBLE) on the poison of this former Russian spy in the U.K. Yesterday, secretary, now former Secretary Tillerson said explicitly Russia, looks like it is to blame and this is unacceptable. The president has said himself, well, let's have the facts. So, you know that will be a different kind of relationship in the White House going forward.

BERMAN: There is no question that Mike Pompeo learned to speak the language publicly on television in a way that the president approves and we know that is very important to this president. Admiral Kirby, Jim Sciutto, thank you very, very much. The breaking news is the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been fired by the president. We believe he got final word by learning about it from Twitter this morning. The Secretary of State, we have new developments. Stay with us.


[10:20:07] BERMAN: All right. The breaking news this morning, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been fired. The president pushing him out, he wants the man to replace him to be the director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo. Gina Haskel will replace Pompeo as director of the CIA.

Joining me now to discuss, CNN political commentators, Patti Solis Doyle, Alice Stewart, and CNN senior political analyst Mark Preston. You know this is not the shortest tenure for a Secretary of State, Mark Preston. I know you will know it was James G. Blaine under the Garfield administration, right, pushed out after just a few months, although he did come back and serve again. This, Rex Tillerson, did outlast the first Blaine tenure. Nevertheless, where does this fit into the overall depiction of this White House administration as being a place of chaos.

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: A place of chaos and place of demanded loyalty. So what we saw from Rex Tillerson was when he would go out on behalf of the United States or around the world, he would often be at odds with President Trump. We saw that certainly with North Korea. When he would come out and say one thing about North Korea and then of course President Trump would not call him on the telephone, he would tweet about it and do it publicly much like he fired him today. He decided to tweet it out but didn't tell him publicly.

BERMAN: He did not call Rex Tillerson. That was an official statement from a State Department employee. The Secretary of State received no phone call from the president at all here. Alice Stewart, as Admiral Kirby said before the break, the president has every right to surround him or herself with whoever he wants to. But this departure and the way it was handled and the relationship that the president had with Rex Tillerson over time, it does tell you something. What do you read from this?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. I mean he's exactly right. He can have whoever he wants. But ideally you have whoever you want and shares your world view and shares your philosophy with regard to a foreign policy from day one. Unfortunately that didn't happen. And clearly Secretary Tillerson and Mattis were moderating force for this president. Pompeo is more in line with the world view of this president. And certainly will reflect that. He's been a lot more hesitant to be critical of the president on many of these issues. And that's what we expect moving forward. They will be in sync with regard to foreign policy. The president does have the right to have the team he wants. Unfortunately the way he went about this I think was extremely disrespectful, but that's not a surprise.

Look, I've spoken with a lot of Republicans this morning. They are very hesitant to say anything about Tillerson. But they're very encouraging about Pompeo. They support his national security, his credentials with regard to that, what he will do with Trump. However some are concerned about the confirmation of Pompeo and he may run into some snags there. But overall, Republicans, is I'm talking to are encouraged by the change and hope that there can be some good solid conversations in advance of this direct meeting with North Korea.

BERMAN: Patti, if you can pick up on the confirmation notion for a second here. Do you envision Democrats standing, trying to stand in the way of Mike Pompeo? He's already been confirmed once. So why try to block it now? And then there is Gina Haskel, deputy director of the CIA who would be first woman to run the agency. On the other hand, there is controversy in her past. She was involved with the torture programs after September 11th and then involved with destroying videotapes of the matter also. That might be something that could be problematic.

PATTI SOLIS DOYLE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I think Pompeo will likely not have a significant problem in the confirmation. He was confirmed once. I don't think that he will be -- have a problem. They have the votes. They no longer need the 60 votes to confirm. So I think he'll be fine.

I very much like the idea of the first woman head of the CIA. I think that a good thing. I have to, though, talk about the way this was handled. You know, clearly it was not surprising. We heard about this happening possibly for months now. You know, Rex Tillerson disagreed with Donald Trump very publicly on a variety of issues, whether it was the Paris accord, whether it is TPP, certainly on North Korea. And Tillerson was by far the most vocal voice in the administration against Russia.

But the way this was handled, we see reports that Secretary of State Tillerson found out on Twitter that he was being fired. I mean, that just sends a real clear message of chaos and erratic behavior from this White House. And it not only falls on Donald Trump it also falls on John Kelly. I mean the minimum was that John Kelly should have had a face to face conversation with the secretary. And that didn't happen. And you have to ask yourself what kind of message does this send to North Korea right now in the middle of negotiations. Is this -- it is not a message of stability in this White House. And, you know, I'll leave it to others to decide whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. But it is -- it is not a good message.

[10:25:10] BERMAN: To be clear, the White House says this didn't happen in spite of North Korea. It happened because of North Korea, Mark Preston. Our reporting from the White House is somehow this pending meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un clarified things for the president, made him realize he's not just on the same wavelength as Rex Tillerson. So he needed fresh blood, or at least Pompeo blood.

PRESTON: I would actually go back to July of last year we saw the report that came out during a private meeting where the secretary, then Secretary of State described Donald Trump as a moron, didn't understand what he was doing.

You know, in any other presidential administration, John, we would be sitting here aghast that it was done this way. But this just seems to be another day, another week of the Trump presidency. The next question, though, is who is going to be next? Are we going to see Jeff Sessions marked out next? Because Donald Trump doesn't like how he's running the Department of Justice. We know that he doesn't like how he's running the Department of Justice. We know that he doesn't like, I was - Department of Justice. So you have to wonder would he go next?

BERMAN: Well, look, I mean Jeff Sessions is still there. You know this does go to show that the president will fire somebody if he wants to. So this notion that Jeff Sessions is, you know, maybe hanging on by a thread, maybe we should dispel that notion right now because if he wanted to get rid of him, you know he would just have posted it on Twitter.

PRESTON: Very quickly about that. The difference between Jeff Sessions right now, though, and what we saw with Rex Tillerson is that in some ways, if he gets rid of Jeff Sessions, it is going to blow up the Russia probe even more. That is probably what is preventing him from doing it, might not stop him from doing it.

BERMAN: It is interesting. The president -- one statement he made as he was speaking to the press before getting on Marine One, Alice, I'm getting very close to having the cabinet around me that I want. Well, that's nice because even president for 14 months. I mean getting the cabinet around you like is sort of the kind of thing you want to do from the beginning.

STEWART: Which means there are other shoes to drop and someone else will be getting the you're fired tweet probably any day now if not in the next few weeks. I think it is critically important that as Mark said, it is not great -- long-term job security to call your boss a moron. But that being said, look, Rex Tillerson and Pompeo were strong supporters -- and -- excuse me, Rex Tillerson and Mattis were strong supporters of diplomacy moving forward with North Korea. I think that's the most important agenda item on the short-term future with regard to this president. Diplomacy works in concert with the strong military. And I strongly believe that Pompeo will be able to demonstrate our military as strong and forceful and that will be very beneficial as they head into these talks with North Korea. Whether -- as they take place, I think that's an important message heading into those talks.

BERMAN: Patti very quickly, you worked inside a White House. It's a fair amount of turmoil in the Clinton administration too. What is it like there today? Given all the changes that just took place?

DOYLE: I would imagine that morale is really, really low right now. As you indicated, they're probably waiting for the next shoe to drop, who is next to go. Is it going to be Sessions? Is that going to cause some sort of Constitutional crisis along with the Russia probe. Is it going to be anybody, frankly, who doesn't agree with the president you know, the president said I'm finally getting the cabinet that I want. And that, you know, if you read between the lines, that means who agrees with you. So if you're in the White House now, you're let inclined to, you know, challenge the president on his policies, challenge the president on any, you know, erratic behavior he may want to display if you want to keep your job. I would imagine that a lot of people are probably getting their resumes together and trying to find their next employment.

BERMAN: You know Rex Tillerson's resume had CEO of Exxon, longtime CEO of Exxon on it. You wonder what he's thinking now if that was a job worth giving up. Patty Solis Doyle, Alice Stewart, Mark Preston, thank you for so much for being with us, again, getting new development by the minute. Stay with us.