News / World

Trump fires Secretary of State Tillerson, a moderate, replaces him with CIA head Pompeo, a hawk

Trump announced the move in a Tuesday statement to the Washington Post, then in a tweet.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson participates in a media availability May 18, 2017 at the State Department in Washington, DC.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson participates in a media availability May 18, 2017 at the State Department in Washington, DC.

U.S. President Donald Trump has fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, with whom he had repeatedly clashed, and replaced him with CIA director Mike Pompeo, a right-wing former congressman who has advocated an aggressive posture toward North Korea and Iran.

The decision could result in the further hardening of Trump foreign policy. With last week’s resignation of chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, the administration is losing two of its top advocates of moderation and internationalism. Pompeo has sought to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal Tillerson supported, and he has hinted at a desire to oust North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

It is also possible, analysts said, that the replacement of Tillerson with Pompeo will not have major policy ramifications. Trump has never seemed inclined to listen to his diplomats, and his decision-making has frequently been driven more by his own impulses than the advice of any appointee.

“I don’t know. And I don’t think anybody knows,” Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to six secretaries of state, said of how Pompeo’s arrival will affect the fate of the Iran deal.

Trump’s move adds to the chaos endlessly plaguing an administration that has experienced abnormally high turnover. Communications director Hope Hicks resigned in late February, staff secretary Rob Porter under a cloud in early February. On Monday, Trump’s personal assistant, John McEntee was fired and escorted off the White House property over some kind of security issue.

Tillerson’s departure could simplify other countries’ dealings with the administration. Trump demonstrated on numerous occasions that Tillerson was not actually speaking for him. His casual undermining of his alleged chief emissary left allies and adversaries puzzling over how seriously to take their interactions with the former ExxonMobil chief executive.

U.S. news outlets said Trump was contemplating more big changes. At various times, he has been said to be irritated with chief of staff John Kelly and national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

Tillerson’s exit was no big surprise: his disconnect with the president was obvious even before the public learned in October that Tillerson had called Trump a “moron.” Tillerson reportedly thought Trump was ill-informed and irresponsible. Trump reportedly thought Tillerson was disloyal, ineffective and overly fond of traditionalist policy. They clashed over Qatar, Russia, NATO, the Paris climate accord and other issues.

Tillerson’s tenure was the among the shortest in U.S. history. It was rocky from the start. Trump was not his only critic: members of both parties, along with current and former diplomats, accused him of mismanagement. Diplomats were particularly incensed by Tillerson’s desire to chop his department’s budget by about a third and to induce 2,000 employees to leave. A union representing foreign service officers warned of an exodus of disaffected staff.

Still, his ouster leaves Trump’s diplomatic apparatus in flux as he embarks on his high-stakes North Korea diplomatic gambit, faces another deadline over withdrawing from the Iran deal, presides over multiple wars and attempts to calm allies unhappy over his tariffs on steel and aluminum. And it leaves the world to figure out yet another official translator for a president whose public comments are often detached from what the U.S. is actually doing.

Tillerson appeared to have a warm relationship with Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who happened to be in Washington on Tuesday, but he was not seen by Canadian officials as an essential ally.

“Rex Tillerson was probably the worst Secretary of State in modern history. He gutted and demoralized the department and delivered nothing for this country. I fear what comes next but am glad he's finally gone,” Tommy Vietor, a former national security spokesman for Barack Obama, said on Twitter.

Trump and Tillerson differed to the end. The same day last week that Tillerson said the U.S. was “a long ways from negotiations” with North Korea, Trump made an impromptu decision, without consulting Tillerson, to meet with Kim. This week, as Trump and his aides initially declined to name Russia as the culprit in the nerve-agent attack on a former spy in EnglandTillerson did so himself.

“We were not really thinking the same. With Mike, Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process,” Trump told reporters.

“I’ve worked with Mike Pompeo now for quite some time. Tremendous energy, tremendous intellect, we’re always on the same wavelength. The relationship has been very good and that’s what I need as secretary of state. I wish Rex Tillerson well.”

Tillerson aides said he was blindsided by the decision, though White House officials said he was initially asked to resign on Friday.

In a post-firing speech, Tillerson thanked a variety of officials but not Trump. He said he received a call from Trump around noon, more than three hours after Trump announced his decision with a statement to the Washington Post and then an 8:44 a.m. tweet.

Tillerson made repeated reference to the importance of U.S. “allies and partners.” And he said “U.S. leadership starts with diplomacy,” a view not universally shared in the administration. He said he would serve until the end of the month but delegate his duties on Wednesday to deputy John Sullivan.

The firing came just a day after Tillerson, returning from a five-country Africa trip, blasted Russia in unusually strong terms for its alleged role in the nerve-agent attack, calling Russia an “irresponsible force of instability in the world.” Trump has regularly spoken more favourably toward Russia, which U.S. intelligence believes intervened in the election to help him, than have other members of his administration. It was not clear Tuesday if Tillerson’s words on Russia factored into Trump’s decision.

Pompeo, a Harvard Law graduate and a former Army officer and businessman, served just over three terms as a Kansas congressman. He has endeared himself to Trump during the daily intelligence briefings he has personally delivered to the president.

First elected as part of the tea party electoral wave in 2010, Pompeo is known for his right-wing views. He has called for the death penalty for secrets-leaker Edward Snowden and advocated a return of the banned National Security Agency surveillance practice of collecting “metadata” on Americans. He also angered American Muslims by accusing community leaders of “silence” in response to terror attacks hundreds of them have actually condemned.

He has also been praised by Democrats as smart, hard-working and willing to listen. The Senate confirmed him 66-32 last year for the job of CIA director.

Trump’s choice for new CIA director is Gina Haspel, Pompeo’s deputy, who would be the first woman to lead the spy agency. Haspel, a former clandestine officer widely respected at the agency, personally oversaw the torture of two terrorism suspects in 2002, the New York Times reported, and was involved in destroying the video evidence.

Trump’s Tuesday tweet read: “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!”

Trump had memorably refused in November to give Tillerson a vote of confidence as rumours swirled about his precarious standing; asked if he wanted Tillerson to remain in his job, Trump simply pointed out that Tillerson was physically present at the White House with him, saying, “He’s here. Rex is here.”

Tillerson will depart less than six months after he gave an unusual speech pledging his support for Trump. The biggest news from that speech, though, was what he didn’t do: deny an NBC report that he had called Trump a “moron.” A spokesperson issued a denial later, but the damage was done. Trump was said to be fuming about the incident days later.

“I think it’s fake news, but if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win,” Trump told Forbes magazine.

Tillerson was the first secretary of state with no experience in military or government. Trump had admired Tillerson’s success in the oil business, and he delighted in picking a fellow political outsider for the job of top diplomat.

Tillerson’s efforts to conduct conventional diplomacy were undermined time and again by Trump’s unscripted pronouncements. In late September, a day after Tillerson said on television that the U.S. had been communicating directly with North Korea, Trump wrote on Twitter: “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful secretary of state, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man. Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”

In a speech in November, Tillerson delivered a sharp rebuke of Russia’s “malicious tactics” and “flagrant violation of democratic norms.” Trump has never used such critical language, instead boasting about his personal chemistry with President Vladimir Putin.

Tillerson was particularly incensed, the New York Times reported, with Trump’s refusal to let him lead the process of trying to broker a diplomatic solution to the conflict between Qatar and its neighbours. Just an hour after Tillerson urged Saudi Arabia to soften its stance on Qatar, Trump blasted Qatar again as a “funder of terrorism at a very high level.”

Tillerson was a force for moderation on several important files. He urged Trump to preserve the Iran deal, which Trump has lambasted, and to keep the U.S. in the Paris climate accord, from which Trump has announced a withdrawal.

Trump sometimes sided with Tillerson, but he was annoyed with him even then. Trump was resentful, the Post reported, that Tillerson had helped to convince him to make a “grudging” decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.

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