WASHINGTON —President Donald Trump unceremoniously dumped Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by tweet on Tuesday and picked CIA Director Mike Pompeo to take his place, abruptly ending Tillerson’s turbulent tenure as America’s top diplomat and escalating the administration’s chaotic second-year shake-up.
Tillerson was ousted barely four hours after he returned from an Africa mission and with no face-to-face conversation with the president, the latest casualty of an unruly White House that has seen multiple top officials depart in recent weeks. Citing the Iran nuclear deal and other issues, Trump said he and Tillerson were “not really thinking the same.”
“We disagreed on things,” Trump told reporters at the White House — a diplomatic take on a fractious relationship that included reports that Tillerson had privately called the president a “moron.”
In an illustration of the gulf that has long separated Tillerson and Trump, the White House and the State Department vigorously disagreed about the circumstances of his firing.
Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein and other State Department officials said Tuesday morning that Tillerson hadn’t learned he was dismissed until he saw Trump’s early-morning tweet, and hadn’t discussed it directly with Trump. Goldstein said the former Exxon Mobil CEO was “unaware of the reason” he was fired and “had had every intention of staying.”
Then Goldstein, hours after making those comments, was fired, too.
Multiple White House officials said that Tillerson had been informed of the decision Friday, while he was in Ethiopia. One official said chief of staff John Kelly had called Tillerson on Friday and again on Saturday to warn him that Trump was about to take imminent action if he did not resign and that a replacement had already been identified. Tillerson canceled his entire schedule that Saturday in Ethiopia, with the State Department telling reporters he was sick.
When Tillerson didn’t step aside, Trump fired him, that official said.
All of the officials demanded anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.
“I think Rex will be much happier now,” Trump said before flying to California.
Trump’s change puts Pompeo, an ardent foe of the Iran nuclear deal, in charge of U.S. diplomacy as the president decides whether to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement. Trump faces another deadline in May to decide whether to remain in the Obama-era nuclear agreement that he campaigned aggressively against.
Tillerson has pushed Trump to remain in the agreement and had been pursuing a delicate strategy with European allies and others to try to improve or augment it to Trump’s liking. The president mentioned differences over how to handle the Iran agreement, “so we were not really thinking the same.”
The reshuffle also comes amid a dramatic diplomatic opening with North Korea, with Trump set to hold a historic meeting with leader Kim Jong Un in May. Pressuring North Korea with sanctions and other isolation measures had been a top Tillerson priority, and he had been one of the administration’s more vocal advocates for holding talks in some form with the North. When Trump ultimately accepted Kim’s invitation for a meeting, Tillerson was in Ethiopia, though he said he spoke with Trump at 2:30 a.m., shortly before it was announced.
Tillerson’s departure adds to a period of intense turnover within Trump’s administration that has alarmed those both in and out of the White House. Top economic adviser Gary Cohn announced his resignation last week, not long after communications director Hope Hicks and staff secretary Rob Porter both departed near the start of Trump’s second year in office.
Speculation that Tillerson would be fired grew last fall with the reports of his “moron” insult, which the secretary state never personally denied. It spiked again in November when White House officials told multiple news outlets of a plan to replace him with Pompeo. But Tillerson continued to hang on, pointing out that his doubters had yet to be proven right.
The president said he was nominating the CIA’s deputy director, Gina Haspel, to take over for Pompeo at the intelligence agency. If confirmed, Haspel would be the CIA’s first female director
Pompeo, a former Republican congressman from Kansas, has been one of Trump’s most loyal Cabinet members and quickly formed a close bond with the president, coming personally to the White House most days to deliver the President’s Daily Briefing. Known for his blunt-talking style, Pompeo has already been confirmed by the Senate for his current role at the CIA, making it likely that he will be confirmed for the State Department role.
“He will do a fantastic job!” Trump tweeted.
But several Democrats quickly raised concerns about both Pompeo and Haspel, suggesting their confirmation hearings could be contentious. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Senate Intelligence Committee, accused Pompeo of being insufficiently tough on Russia and said he’d “demonstrated a casual relationship to truth and principle.”
Pompeo said he was “deeply grateful” to be nominated and looked “forward to guiding the world’s finest diplomatic corps” if confirmed. He also praised Trump.
“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,” Pompeo said.
On Tillerson’s plane trip back from Africa, he had told reporters he had cut short his mission by one night because he was exhausted after working most of the night both Friday on Saturday and falling ill. He mentioned that after his 2:30 a.m. call with Trump on Friday about North Korea, the next night he “got another call at 2:30 that woke me up,” but declined to say what that call was about.
“I felt like, look, I just need to get back,” Tillerson said.
Dismissing Tillerson had been discussed at multiple levels for a long time, said a senior White House official, adding that the North Korea overture and invitation brought more urgency to the decision. Two officials said Trump wanted to have a new team in place ahead of an upcoming meeting with Kim, the North Korean leader.
One senior White House official said that when Trump made the decision to meet with Kim while Tillerson was in Africa, an aide asked if Tillerson should weigh in on the matter. Trump said there was no reason to consult him because no matter what the group decided, Tillerson would be against it, the official said.
It was unclear when exactly Tillerson would formally step down. Once he does, Deputy Secretary John Sullivan will take over temporarily until Pompeo is confirmed, the White House said.
The former Exxon chief had been an unlikely pick for top diplomat, with no formal experience but a lifetime’s worth of personal relationships with heads of state and powerful global figures, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was slated to retire from Exxon in March 2017 at age 65 under the company’s mandatory retirement policy when he joined the administration.