President Donald Trump has fired his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and picked CIA director Mike Pompeo to replace him. And he did this all in an early morning Tweet on Tuesday, which is the president’s preferred method of mass communication.
Tillerson learned of his firing through the Tweet, according to Steve Goldstein, undersecretary of state. “The secretary did not speak to the president and is unaware of the reason, but he is grateful for the opportunity to serve,” said Under Secretary of State Steve Goldstein in a statement Tuesday. “The secretary had every intention of staying because of the critical progress made in national security.”
White House officials disputed that notion, and promptly fired Goldstein.
The rapidly announced departures came just hours after Tillerson returned from a weeklong trip to five African nations.
His departure was officially announced by the president on Twitter. “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!”
Hours later, Tillerson appeared at the State Department and said “effective at the end of the day” he is delegating all authority to Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan. Tillerson said he is formally stepping down at the end of the month and stressed the importance of a smooth transition to his successor.
In the days leading up to his firing, Tillerson showed no outward signs that his days in the administration were numbered.
A senior administration official told VOA News on Tuesday that Tillerson was informed of his ouster last week. The official, speaking on background, said Tillerson was told by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly last Friday that he was being removed from the Cabinet by the president. The official said Kelly “followed up” with another phone call Saturday.
However, that account contradicts other reporting, which said Kelly never explicitly told Tillerson he was being fired. The Associated Press reported that Kelly warned Tillerson that Trump might tweet something that would concern him, but was not told what the tweet might say.
Tillerson told reporters traveling with him at the time that he did get a late-night phone call, but did not elaborate.
“I got another call at 2:30 a.m. that woke me up. I can’t say. And so I was up most of that night. And that was Friday night,” Tillerson later told reporters.
Just two days later, dressed in sneakers and khakis, Tillerson appeared relaxed and enjoyed a tour at Kenya Wildlife Service Genetics and Molecular Forensics Laboratory, chatting with experts working at the lab, as well as prominent conservationist Dr. Richard Leakey.
On Monday, during a rare on-the-record briefing with seven members of the traveling press en route to Cape Verde, Tillerson appeared to be at ease, occasionally smiling while answering questions.
And during a joint press conference with Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama in Abuja earlier Monday, his last public event in Africa before Trump’s tweet announcing his replacement, Tillerson appeared fully invested, showing no outward signs that he would soon be leaving his position.
Just minutes after Trump gave Tillerson the ax, the president was blunt about his long-standing differences with his former secretary of state.
“We disagreed on things,” Trump told reporters outside the White House, specifically pointing to friction over the Iran nuclear agreement.
“I wanted to either break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently,” Trump said. “We were really not thinking the same.”
The move left some of Trump’s staunchest defenders with mixed feelings.
“It’s all very Trumpian,” said James Carafano of the conservative Heritage Foundation, who helped staff the State Department as a member of Trump’s transition team. “When the president makes changes, he just abruptly makes them.”
During his 14 months at the State Department, Tillerson had numerous policy differences with Trump–and the friction frequently played out in public.
The animosity peaked in October, when news surfaced that Tillerson reportedly called Trump a “moron” following a July Pentagon meeting. Tillerson never explicitly denied the account.
Tillerson also publicly disagreed with Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord. He also reportedly opposed Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Mike Pompeo, on the other hand has publicly expressed his support for a strong US-Israel relationship and has addressed pro-Israel organizations in the past.
In early November of 2017, Pompeo served as keynote speaker at the “Our Soldiers Speak” annual fundraising in Manhattan. “Our Soldiers Speak” is the is the only organization which brings high ranking, senior, uniformed commanders and officers of the Israel Defense Forces and the Israel National Police to address audiences at college and university campuses, to give briefings to members of Congress and other prominent governmental leaders. They also deliver their presentations at community and synagogue programs.
On this auspicious occasion, Pompeo took the opportunity to brief the audience on the ongoing and close relationship between the US and Israel.
And Tillerson sometimes took a tougher stance than Trump on Russia — including this week, when he blamed Moscow for a suspected nerve agent attack in Britain. In return, Trump on numerous occasions publicly undermined his top diplomat, including in October when he tweeted Tillerson was “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
When Trump ultimately made his decision last week to meet with Kim, he did so without consulting Tillerson.
“I really didn’t discuss it very much with him honestly,” Trump acknowledged Tuesday. “I made that decision by myself.”
The Tillerson firing comes as Trump embarks on several major foreign policy initiatives, including talks with Kim Jong Un, recently unveiled tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum, and Trump’s threats to undo the Iran nuclear deal.
As Trump becomes more confident in his foreign policy, he has come to realize that the U.S. diplomatic apparatus was holding him back in some ways, Carafano said.
“There’s always this kind of pull from the State Department to not try new things and just keep doing what we’re doing,” Carafano said. “And I think the president doesn’t feel that’s helpful anymore.”
The moves suggest the Trump administration “is tactically going to be a little bolder on its foreign policy,” he said.
It’s unclear whether Trump’s relationship with the State Department will improve under CIA chief Mike Pompeo. “I’ve worked with Mike Pompeo now for quite some time,” Trump said Tuesday. “Tremendous energy. Tremendous intellect. We’re always on the same wavelength.”
But the problem is deeper, said David Schultz, professor of political science at Minnesota’s Hamline University.
Trump does “not seem to view diplomacy as a major aspect of his administration,” Schultz said. “Evidence of that is that many State Department positions are unfilled even to this day, and many careerists have departed.”
A senior White House official also said Tuesday Tillerson’s ouster occurred at this time because Trump wanted to “have his new team in place in advance of the upcoming talks with North Korea and various ongoing trade negotiations.”
The president said they also disagreed on the 2015 Iran nuclear accord.
“When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible, I guess he thought it’s okay. I want to either break it or do something and he felt a little bit differently, so we were not really thinking the same.”
During the Obama administration, the U.S. and other major powers struck the deal in which Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear program in exchange for the easing of international economic sanctions. President Trump has repeatedly criticized the agreement as a bad deal and threatened to dismantle it.
By: Steve Herman