New Delhi, Mar 13, 2018 : President Donald Trump has ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and plans to nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him as the nation’s top diplomat, orchestrating a major change to his national security team amid delicate outreach such as possible talks with North Korea, White House officials said Tuesday.
Trump last Friday asked Tillerson to step aside, and the embattled diplomat cut short a trip to Africa on Monday to return to Washington.
Tension between Trump and Tillerson has simmered for many months, but the president and his top diplomat reached a breaking point over the past week, officials said.
The reason for the latest rift was unclear, but Trump and Tillerson have often appeared at odds over policies such as the nuclear deal with Iran and the tone of U.S. diplomacy. A spokesman for Tillerson said the secretary of state "had every intention of staying" in his job and was "unaware of the reason" for his firing.
Tillerson cut short his trip to Africa on Monday to return to Washington. "I felt like, look, I just need to get back," he told reporters aboard his plane home. The White House, however, had told him the previous Friday he would be dismissed, according to two administration officials. The news was not conveyed in person by Trump.
CIA Chief Mike Pompeo will succeed Rex Tillerson as the new Secretary of State (File Photo)
At the White House on Tuesday, Trump said the move had been considered for "a long time."
"We disagreed on things ... the Iran deal," Trump told reporters. "So we were not thinking the same. With Mike Pompeo, we have a similar thought process."
Trump selected Gina Haspel - the deputy director at the CIA - to succeed Pompeo at the CIA. She would become the first woman to run the spy agency.
Both would need to be confirmed by the Senate at a time when the closely divided chamber has stalled on confirming dozens of Trump nominees.
In a statement issued to The Washington Post, Trump praised both Pompeo and Haspel.
"I am proud to nominate the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo, to be our new Secretary of State," Trump said. "Mike graduated first in his class at West Point, served with distinction in the U.S. Army, and graduated with Honors from Harvard Law School. He went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives with a proven record of working across the aisle."
The president continued, "Gina Haspel, the Deputy Director of the CIA, will be nominated to replace Director Pompeo and she will be the CIA’s first-ever female director, a historic milestone. Mike and Gina have worked together for more than a year, and have developed a great mutual respect."
Trump also had words of praise for Tillerson: "Finally, I want to thank Rex Tillerson for his service. A great deal has been accomplished over the last fourteen months, and I wish him and his family well."
A spokesman for Tillerson said the secretary of state has not spoken directly with Trump about the move.
"The secretary had every intention of staying because of the critical progress made in national security and other areas," Steve Goldstein, undersecretary of public diplomacy for the State Department, said in a statement.
"He will miss his colleagues greatly at the Department of State, and the foreign ministers he’s worked with throughout the world," Goldstein continued. "The secretary did not speak to the president, and is unaware of the reason. He is grateful for the opportunity to serve, and believes strongly that public service is a noble calling."
The president - who has long clashed with Tillerson, who he believes is "too establishment" in his thinking - felt it was important to make the change now, as he prepares for possible high-stakes talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as well as upcoming trade negotiations, three White House officials said.
"I am deeply grateful to President Trump for permitting me to serve as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and for this opportunity to serve as Secretary of State," Pompeo said in a statement. "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. Serving alongside the great men and women of the CIA, the most dedicated and talented public servants I have encountered, has been one of the great honors of my life."
Haspel in a statement also said she was excited for her promotion.
"After 30 years as an officer of the Central Intelligence Agency, it has been my honor to serve as its Deputy Director alongside Mike Pompeo for the past year," she said. "I am grateful to President Trump for the opportunity, and humbled by his confidence in me, to be nominated to be the next Director of the Central Intelligence Agency."
On the flight from Nigeria, Tillerson appeared to break with the White House in his assessment of the poisoning of an ex-spy in Britain. He singled out Russia as responsible for the attack, echoing the finger-pointing of the British government.