WASHINGTON — President Trump ousted on Tuesday his secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, the most dramatic in a cascade of personnel moves that suggest Trump is determined to surround himself with loyalists more willing to reflect his “America First” views.
Trump announced that he would replace Tillerson with Mike Pompeo, the CIA director and former Tea Party movement congressman, who has cultivated a close relationship with the president and has taken a harder line than Tillerson on critical issues like Iran and North Korea.
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
Tillerson’s dismissal, on the heels of Gary D. Cohn’s resignation as Trump’s chief economic adviser after a dispute over steel tariffs, pulls the Trump administration further out of the economic and foreign policy mainstream and closer to the nationalist ideas that animated Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
It also suggests that after a year of chaotic on-the-job training, Trump has developed more confidence in his own instincts and wants aides and Cabinet members with whom he has good chemistry and who embrace his positions.
As the White House absorbed the news about Tillerson, rumors swirled that the national security adviser, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, and the secretary of Veterans Affairs, David J. Shulkin, would soon follow him out the door. The sense of disarray was deepened by the purging of Tillerson’s inner circle and the sudden dismissal of a personal aide to Trump.
“I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things I want,” Trump said Tuesday before leaving for California. He said he disagreed with Tillerson on the Iran nuclear deal and on other issues.
“It was a different mind-set,” Trump said.
Their lack of rapport was evident in the peremptory way the president fired him. Tillerson learned of it Tuesday morning when an aide showed him a Twitter post from Trump announcing the change. But he had gotten a warning last Friday when the chief of staff, John F. Kelly, called to tell him to cut short a trip to Africa and added, “You may get a tweet.”
It was an abrupt end after months of speculation — to a star-crossed tenure for a Texas oil baron who never adapted to the power dynamics of Trump’s world, or to the president’s worldview. Tillerson clashed with the White House staff and broke with Trump on a range of issues, including the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the American response to Russia’s cyber aggression.
However sudden his departure, Tillerson’s future had seemed tenuous since reports in October that he called Trump a “moron” in a meeting with colleagues at the Pentagon. Trump, aides said, never forgave him.
Tillerson had a hectic schedule of meetings set for Tuesday afternoon. Instead, after a brief phone call with Trump, he appeared in the State Department briefing room at 2 p.m. to confirm he would hand over his duties to his deputy at midnight.
“What is most important,” he said, his voice thick with emotion, “is to ensure an orderly and smooth transition during a time that the country continues to face significant policy and national security challenges.”
In Pompeo, the president will have a hawkish secretary of state, who is more skeptical of diplomatic engagement with North Korea, just as Trump is preparing to meet the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, and is far readier to rip up the Iran nuclear deal, two months before Trump faces his next deadline to decide whether to reimpose sanctions on Tehran.
As Pompeo’s replacement at the CIA, Trump named the current deputy director, Gina Haspel. A respected career official, she would be the first woman to lead the agency. But Haspel also oversaw a secret CIA prison in Thailand when a terrorism suspect was waterboarded there and she later drafted a cable ordering the destruction of videotapes documenting brutal interrogations — both of which could complicate her Senate confirmation.
At the Department of Veterans Affairs, Trump has grown impatient with Shulkin, a politically moderate former hospital executive who served in the Obama administration. He recently sounded out Rick Perry, the energy secretary, about taking over the department, according to two people close to the White House.
For Cohn’s successor, the president said he was seriously considering Larry Kudlow, a Reagan administration official who is now a conservative commentator on CNBC. While Trump acknowledged differences with him on trade policy, he said Kudlow had come around to the argument that tariffs were an effective tool in negotiating trade deals.
In addition, he added, “Larry has been a friend of mine for a long time. He backed me very early in the campaign.”
At the White House, officials faced the familiar challenge of presenting a methodical rationale for Trump’s impulsive moves. One aide said he decided to replace Tillerson now to have a new team in place before the talks with Kim, which are scheduled to happen by May. But Tillerson was the most persistent advocate of opening talks with North Korea.
The White House’s purge extended to Tillerson’s staff. The undersecretary of state for public affairs, Steve Goldstein, was fired after he issued a statement that seemed to contradict the White House. Tillerson’s chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, and his deputy chief of staff, Christine Ciccone, were also expected to depart.
That followed the early-morning dismissal of Trump’s aide, John McEntee, who had his security clearance revoked and was escorted from the White House grounds.
A former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, Tillerson had once been viewed as an intriguing, if unorthodox, Cabinet choice. He had deep experience with Middle Eastern potentates, and knew President Vladimir Putin of Russia through Exxon’s extensive efforts to explore for oil in Russia.
But Tillerson’s determination to bring a business sensibility to the State Department backfired, leaving it demoralized and understaffed. Despite his global experience, Tillerson was ill-suited to the public duties of the United States’ chief diplomat and was isolated from the career officials whom he often froze out of the most important policy debates.
Tillerson had a rancorous relationship with both McMaster and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser. He resented that Trump had entrusted Kushner, a 37-year-old diplomatic neophyte, with the Middle East peace portfolio and trade negotiations with Mexico, according to people in the White House.
When the National Security Council tried to send officials on Tillerson’s trips, an official said, he either objected or excluded them from key meetings. And when the president named his daughter Ivanka Trump to lead a delegation to India, Tillerson downgraded the status of the State Department officials who accompanied her — irritating the president.
His policy disagreements with the president appeared to be his undoing: Tillerson wanted to remain in the Paris climate accord; Trump decided to leave it. Tillerson supported preserving the Iran nuclear deal; Trump loathed the deal as “an embarrassment to the United States.” And Tillerson called for dialogue to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis, while Trump threatened a military strike.
At times, White House officials said, Tillerson’s behavior verged on insubordination. The administration, for example, was extremely cautious in responding to reports that Russia was behind the deadly nerve-gas attack in Britain. But when Tillerson was asked about it in Africa, he said, “It appears that it clearly came from Russia.”
His statement infuriated the White House, which had crafted its talking points with lawyers at the State Department to keep the United States in lock step with Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain. Instead, an official said, Tillerson made the White House look like it was soft on Putin, which he insisted was not the intention.