President Donald Trump announced Tuesday that he has fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and will nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to succeed him, replacing his top diplomat ahead of a potential high-stakes sitdown between the US President and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Tillerson’s departure follows months of tension between him and Trump. Gina Haspel, the current CIA deputy director, stands to take over the agency, Trump tweeted Tuesday morning.
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.
Tillerson thanked the American people, his State Department staff and the nation’s extensive network of diplomats in his farewell statement on Tuesday.
One person he did not thank: Trump, the man who nominated him for the job but abruptly told the world of his ouster in a tweet on Tuesday morning.
The only mention of Trump came at the top of the statement when Tillerson mentioned that the President called him “a little after noontime from Air Force One” to talk about his ouster. That call came hours after Trump told the world Tillerson was fired on Twitter.
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. A senior White House official later clarified that chief of staff John Kelly told Tillerson that he would be replaced, but did not specify the timing.
Earlier on Tuesday, Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy Steve Goldstein said Tillerson had not spoken to Trump and was unaware of the reason behind his firing.
Goldstein said Tillerson was notified of the official termination in Trump’s tweet Tuesday morning and, in a statement, said Tillerson had “every intention of remaining.” Hours after the statement was released, Goldstein himself was fired.
Asked how Tillerson learned of his dismissal, Trump said Tuesday that “Rex and I have been talking about this a long time.” He specifically mentioned the Iran nuclear deal as an example of disagreement.
“We were not really thinking the same,” Trump said. “With Mike Pompeo, we have a similar thought process.”
Trump eyed Pompeo for months
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 told reporters Tuesday that he and Pompeo are “on the same wavelength” and “the relationship has always been very good and that is what I need.”
Trump’s anger at Tillerson after it leaked last year 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 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.
Trump and his top aides have spent recent days attempting to quell talk of a White House in chaos, with the President tweeting earlier this month that there was “no Chaos, only great Energy” in the White House. But five top Trump administration officials – ranging from communications professionals to Tillerson – have resigned or been fired in the last two weeks.
Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, Trump top economic adviser, resigned from the White House last week after a dispute over new tariffs on steel and aluminum. Hope Hicks, Trump’s communications director and longtime confidante, resigned late last month. Trump’s longtime personal aide John McEntee was fired and escorted from the White House on Monday, sources tell CNN. And Josh Raffel, a senior spokesman who worked extensively with Trump’s daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump, left the White House last month.
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 Kim by the end of May.
Tillerson had spearheaded the maximum pressure campaign that the administration credits with bringing the North Koreans to the negotiating table, bringing the issue up in every country meeting he had, no matter how seemingly unrelated.
Two people familiar with the matter say the North Korea issue was the single biggest factor in the ousting of Tillerson. Trump told aides that differences over how and when to hold talks with Kim only underscored what he’s felt for months, which is that Tillerson is just on a different wavelength.
Another source close to the White House said Trump “wanted a strong team ready for North Korea. That’s why he moved the chess pieces.”
Trump discussed not having talked about the North Korea decision with Tillerson Tuesday morning while departing the White House.
On a recent flight back from Africa, Tillerson spoke with reporters off camera, and seemed almost to lobby for his ability to continue the job.
“I have a lot of confidence in my ability to create the conditions for successful negotiations between two very disparate parties,” Tillerson said, adding that he and others were working to prepare Trump to deal with Kim. “But I’m not the only guy working on this. Others are working on this as well. We have an obligation to prepare the President for that meeting and I think there is some ground work we can do ahead of that that will help with that preparation.”