WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson today after a series of public rifts over policy on North Korea, Russia and Iran, replacing his chief diplomat with loyalist CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
The biggest shakeup of Trump’s Cabinet since he took office in January 2017 was announced by the president on Twitter as his administration prepares for an unprecedented meeting with the leader of North Korea.
Trump tapped the CIA’s deputy director, Gina Haspel, to replace Pompeo at the intelligence agency.
Tillerson’s departure caps months of friction between the Republican president and the 65-year-old former Exxon Mobil chief executive. The tensions peaked last fall amid reports Tillerson had called Trump a “moron” and considered resigning.
“We’ve been talking about this for a long time,” Trump said on the White House lawn today. “We got along actually quite well but we disagreed on things.”
He cited the Iran nuclear deal as an example of disagreements with Tillerson and said he and Pompeo have “a similar thought process.”
Senior State Department officials said Tillerson was unaware of why Trump pushed him out and that he had intended to stay in the job.
On Monday, Tillerson blamed Russia for the poisonings in England of a former Russian double agent and his daughter. Earlier, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders had refrained from saying Moscow was responsible.
A senior White House official said Trump asked Tillerson to step down on Friday but did not want to make it public while he was on a trip to Africa. Trump’s Twitter announcement came only a few hours after Tillerson landed in Washington after the trip, which had been cut short.
The official said Trump works well with Pompeo, a former Republican congressman from Kansas, and wanted him in place before the U.S. president’s planned talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and trade negotiations.
Tillerson had no diplomatic or political experience before becoming secretary of state. He appeared out of the loop last week when Trump announced he would meet with North Korea’s Kim.
Stocks pared gains on the Tillerson news, but then stabilized. S&P futures were last up 0.3 percent.
“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 said on Twitter.
Tillerson joined a long list of senior officials who have either resigned or been fired since Trump took office in January 2017. Others include strategist Steve Bannon, national security adviser Michael Flynn, FBI Director James Comey, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, health secretary Tom Price, communications directors Hope Hicks and Anthony Scaramucci, economic adviser Gary Cohn and press secretary Sean Spicer.
Trump publicly undercut Tillerson’s diplomatic initiatives numerous times and Tillerson appeared out of the loop this month when Trump announced plans to meet with North Korea’s Kim.
Senior Trump administration officials also made it known in November that the White House had drafted a plan to replace Tillerson.
In December Tillerson had offered to begin direct talks with North Korea without pre-conditions, backing away from a key U.S. demand that Pyongyang must first accept that any negotiations would be about giving up its nuclear arsenal.
But the White House distanced itself from those remarks, and a few days later, Tillerson himself backed off.
Several months earlier in Beijing, Tillerson told reporters the United States was directly communicating with North Korea but that Pyongyang had shown no interest in dialogue. Trump contradicted Tillerson’s efforts a day later.
“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump wrote on Twitter, using a pejorative nickname for Kim. “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!” Trump added.
Early in 2018, Trump said on Twitter that Tillerson was “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with North Korea. Tillerson had joined Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in pressing a skeptical Trump to stick with the agreement with Iran and other world powers over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and he has taken a more hawkish view than Trump on Russia.
In June, Tillerson urged Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states to ease a blockade against Qatar, which they accuse of supporting Islamist militants and their arch-adversary Iran. Qatar calls these charges baseless.
Hours later, however, Trump accused Qatar of being a “high level” sponsor of terrorism, appearing to side firmly with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt in the dispute and to undermine Tillerson’s effort to adopt a more even-handed approach to broker a solution.
Tillerson also won few plaudits from career diplomats for his performance at the State Department. His tenure coincided with the departure of dozens of veteran foreign policy hands, and most of the senior policy-making positions remain unfilled.