Rex W. Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, had been among President Trump’s most well-regarded cabinet choices. He is replaced by Mike Pompeo, currently the C.I.A. director.
WASHINGTON — President Trump announced on Tuesday that he had ousted Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and will replace him with Mike Pompeo, now the C.I.A. director, ending the 14-month tenure of the nation’s chief diplomat who repeatedly had found himself at odds with the White House on a variety of key foreign policy issues.
“We were not really thinking the same,” Mr. Trump told reporters at the White House, explaining his decision to replace Mr. Tillerson.
He added: “Really, it was a different mind-set, a different thinking.”
Mr. Tillerson found out he had been fired before dawn, shortly after his flight returned from a weeklong trip to Africa, said Steve Goldstein, the under secretary of state for public diplomacy. There was no indication during the five-nation visit that Mr. Tillerson’s departure was imminent; Mr. Goldstein said on Tuesday morning that the secretary had been expected to remain in office for the foreseeable future.
The president did not personally call Mr. Tillerson, and Mr. Goldstein said he did not know how the chief diplomat learned he had been fired.
Mr. Trump announced his decision 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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2018
The move caught even the White House staff by surprise. Just the day before, a White House spokesman berated a reporter for suggesting there was any kind of split between Mr. Tillerson and the White House because of disparate comments on Russian responsibility for a poison attack in Britain.
But on Tuesday morning, a senior administration official said that Mr. Trump decided now to replace Mr. Tillerson to have a new team in place before upcoming talks with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader he plans to meet by May. The president also wanted a new chief diplomat for various ongoing trade negotiations.
At the C.I.A., Mr. Pompeo will be replaced by the current deputy director, Gina Haspel, who will be the first woman to head the spy agency. Both she and Mr. Pompeo would need confirmation by the Senate to take the positions.
Mr. Tillerson has been out of favor with Mr. Trump for months but had resisted being pushed out. His distance from Mr. Trump’s inner circle was clear last week when the president accepted an invitation to meet with Mr. Kim, to Mr. Tillerson’s surprise.
Mr. Trump said Mr. Pompeo “has earned the praise of members in both parties by strengthening our intelligence gathering, modernizing our defensive and offensive capabilities, and building close ties with our friends and allies in the international intelligence community.”
“I have gotten to know Mike very well over the past 14 months, and I am confident he is the right person for the job at this critical juncture,” the president continued, in a written statement distributed by the White House. ”He will continue our program of restoring America’s standing in the world, strengthening our alliances, confronting our adversaries, and seeking the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Mr. Pompeo, a former congressman, has become a favorite of Mr. Trump’s, impressing the president with his engaging approach during morning intelligence briefings. But he also, at times, has been at odds with the president — including agreeing with a C.I.A. assessment about Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections.
In picking Ms. Haspel to succeed Mr. Pompeo at the C.I.A., Mr. Trump opted for continuity rather than bringing in an outsider. At one point last fall, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, one of the president’s closest Republican allies on Capitol Hill, had been tentatively tapped as the front-runner to run the agency if Mr. Pompeo moved up, but the idea later faded.
Mr. Tillerson, a former chief executive of the oil giant Exxon Mobil, had once been viewed as an intriguing, if unorthodox, cabinet choice. He had deep experience with Middle Eastern potentates, and knew President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia through Exxon’s extensive efforts to explore for oil in Russia.
But the early enthusiasm for bringing a business sensibility to the State Department faded fast, as Mr. Tillerson seemed overwhelmed by the diplomatic challenges before him and isolated by career foreign service officers whom he often froze out of the most important debates.
His profound disagreements with the president on policy appeared to be his undoing: Mr. Tillerson wanted to remain part of the Paris climate accord; Mr. Trump decided to leave it. Mr. Tillerson supported the continuation of the Iran nuclear deal; Mr. Trump loathed the deal as “an embarrassment to the United States.” And Mr. Tillerson believed in dialogue to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis, but Mr. Trump repeatedly threatened military options.
Veteran diplomats said they could not remember a time when a president so regularly undermined his secretary of state so brazenly in the midst of a tense situation. Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who served many Republican presidents, last fall urged Mr. Tillerson to quit.
“Rex Tillerson has been dealt a bad hand by the Potus & has played it badly,” Mr. Haass wrote in a post on Twitter, using the acronym for president of the United States. “For both reasons he cannot be effective SecState & should resign.” (More)