Donald Trump sacked Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state on Tuesday, making the US’s top diplomat the latest casualty of a White House that has been in near-constant, open conflict with some of the president’s most senior aides.
Mr Trump immediately named Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, as Mr Tillerson’s replacement, swapping a soft-spoken former ExxonMobil chief executive with a former Republican congressman with a far more hawkish foreign policy record.
“We got along actually quite well, but we disagreed on things,” Mr Trump said in an impromptu news conference on the White House lawn. “We were not really thinking the same; with Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process . . . I think Rex will be much happier now.”
The president has repeatedly clashed with Mr Tillerson over most major foreign policy issues, with Mr Tillerson urging a more diplomatic approach to Iran and North Korea than his bellicose boss.
The ousting, which Mr Trump acknowledged was done without speaking directly to Mr Tillerson, also came just hours after the secretary of state outspokenly supported the British government’s case that Moscow was behind the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy — something the White House had failed to do.
But administration officials said the removal of Mr Tillerson was prompted by the decision to hold direct talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a move that Mr Trump made without consulting the secretary of state.
“The president wanted to make sure to have his new team in place in advance of the upcoming talks with North Korea and various ongoing trade negotiations,” a senior White House official said.
Mr Tillerson said he would immediately delegate his responsibilities to his number two, John Sullivan, and step down permanently at the end of the month.
“Nothing is possible without allies and partners,” he said in a speech that did not thank Mr Trump but instead underlined successes in several areas where the two had diverged, including North Korea and South Asian policy. He also questioned America’s future relations with China.
Mr Tillerson’s departure adds to the churn at the highest ranks in the Trump administration, coming less than a week after Gary Cohn resigned as the president’s chief economic adviser after losing a battle over Mr Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium imports.
Although Mr Trump had openly contradicted Mr Tillerson on major foreign policy issues, the secretary of state was not unique; the president has urged the resignation of his attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, and both his interior and housing secretaries are battling with White House staff.
The departure also came in a messy way that has come to characterise personnel moves in the Trump administration. The state department issued a statement saying that Mr Tillerson had “every intention of staying” in his post but was caught unawares by Mr Trump’s announcement, which came in a Twitter post.
“The secretary did not speak to the president and is unaware of the reason,” said Steve Goldstein, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, who had sought to boost Mr Tillerson’s public profile. Mr Goldstein was sacked later in the day.
The president said that, while the two men got along personally, he had several areas of disagreement with Mr Tillerson. “When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible, I guess he thought it was OK. I wanted to either break it or do something and he felt a little bit differently,” Mr Trump said.
Mr Trump said he was confident that Mr Pompeo was “the right person for the job at this critical juncture”, adding that as secretary of state, he would strengthen alliances, confront adversaries and seek the de-nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
Mr Pompeo’s nomination will require confirmation by the Senate, which voted last year to confirm him as CIA director by 66 to 32.
Gina Haspel, the CIA’s deputy director, is set to replace Mr Pompeo, becoming the first woman to head the agency.
Russia was one of several foreign policy areas where Mr Tillerson’s increasingly critical line was at odds with the president’s more emollient stance.
In his last public comments as secretary of state, Mr Tillerson took a tough line on Moscow, saying that a nerve attack on a former Russian double agent living in the UK earlier this month “clearly came from Russia. what we’ve seen is a pivot on their part to be more aggressive”.
Trump’s turbulent White House
Mike Flynn National security adviser
Resigned after misleading the White House about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to Washington
Sean Spicer Press secretary
Stepped down as Mr Trump overhauled communications and legal team
Reince Priebus Chief of Staff
Left after failure to impose discipline on the White House
Anthony ScaramucciWhite House Communications Director
Left after ten days in the job with his tenure marked by expletive laden interview in which criticised Mr Priebus
Steve Bannon Chief Strategist
Departure of controversial economic nationalist an apparent win for globalists
Tom Price Secretary of Health and Human Services
Resigned after criticism of his use of taxpayer-funded private jets
Dina PowellDeputy national security adviser
Left Washington to return to New York where she continued to advise president on Middle East. She has since returned to Goldman Sachs
Hope HicksCommunications director
Resigns a day after she reportedly admitted telling ‘white lies’ on Trump’s behalf
Gary CohnDirector of the National Economic Council
Resignation announced after disagreement over the president’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium imports
Rex TillersonSecretary of state
Fired by the president after months of clashes over foreign policy
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Mr Tillerson had entered the job with a big liability, in that he lacked a previous relationship with the president. “The deck was stacked against him from the start,” he said. “[Mr Trump] and Tillerson were not on the same page, either personally or politically.”
By contrast, Mr Pompeo has been working with the president for a year at the CIA, which could help him establish himself at the state department. “Tillerson never bonded with his department,” Mr Haass added.
Mr Tillerson had spent months attempting to craft a relationship from scratch with a president whom he met for the first time during an ad hoc interview after the 2016 presidential election.
The secretary of state also faced rivalries with the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, and national security adviser HR McMaster, and dissent from his own ranks as he pursued a reform programme that included unpopular cuts to the state department.
Mr Tillerson, who rose through the ranks of Exxon to become its chief executive over a 41-year career with the company, was widely seen as instrumental in leading the administration’s diplomatic pressure campaign on North Korea, encouraging countries to go beyond tough global sanctions that he helped introduce at the UN.
But Mr Trump has also regularly tweeted his dissatisfaction with his secretary of state, telling him last year that he was “wasting his time” attempting to negotiate with Mr Kim.
In recent days, Mr Tillerson appeared to distance himself from Mr Trump’s historic decision to hold talks with the North Korean leader, framing it as “a decision the president took himself”.
Mr Tillerson, who cut short a working trip to Africa, landed back in Washington early on Tuesday, just hours before Mr Trump made the announcement of his departure.
In a statement, Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority leader, praised “the unique talents of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state”, language that contrasted with some of Mr Trump’s past criticism.