WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to step aside, the White House confirmed Tuesday, replacing him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
In a tweet, Trump thanked Tillerson for his service and said Pompeo “will do a fantastic job.”
The ouster ends months of discord between Trump and Tillerson, who often seemed out of the loop or in disagreement with the president on major foreign policy decisions.
The exit was not a voluntary one, the State Department confirmed in a startling statement Tuesday. Tillerson “did not speak to the President and is unaware of the reason” for his firing, Under Secretary of State Steve Goldstein said in a statement Tuesday morning, “but he is grateful for the opportunity to serve.”
Tillerson, said Goldstein, had “every intention of staying because of the critical progress made in national security.”
On the South Lawn Tuesday, Trump told reporters he was “close” to having the Cabinet he wanted, wishing Tillerson well while predicting “great” things from Pompeo in the State Department role.
“Rex and I have been talking about this for a long time,” the president said before boarding Marine One to head to California. While the two got along “well,” said Trump, “we disagreed on things.”
“We were not really thinking the same,” Trump said of Tillerson. “With Mike [Pompeo]…we have a very similar thought process. I think it’s gonna go very well.”
As for Tillerson, Trump thinks he “will be much happier now.”
Pompeo, who will be nominated to succeed Tillerson, may face a tough confirmation process in the Senate.
While Tillerson — who took a more traditional approach to his job as America’s top diplomat — clashed with Trump throughout his tenure, Pompeo has enjoyed a much closer relationship with the president. Multiple current and former intelligence officials told NBC last year that some inside the intelligence community started calling Pompeo the “Trump whisperer,” referencing the depth of the relationship between the two.
Tillerson spent the past week on a lengthy trip through Africa, landing very early Tuesday morning in Washington after cutting his trip short by one day.
His Africa trip highlighted even more daylight between Tillerson and his boss, most recently on North Korea, as well as the poisoning of a Russian spy last week.
While the White House on Monday refused to sign on to the British assessments that Russia was responsible for the attempted poisoning of an ex-spy in the U.K., Tillerson told press aboard his government aircraft that the “really egregious act” appears to have “clearly” come from Russia.
The coming meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un also played a role, a senior administration official told NBC News, saying that Trump “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.” Trump said Tuesday that he made the decision to speak with Kim by himself.
Just one day before Trump agreed to meetings with Pyongyang last week, Tillerson — during a trip in Africa — said the two countries were still “a long way” from direct negotiations with the regime about their nuclear program.
Though the timing of the ouster came as a surprise, the move itself was not a shock following months of rumors.
A White House official told NBC News in December of last year that the administration was considering a plan to replace Tillerson with Pompeo. At the time, that official said Tillerson’s allies within the administration had grown scarce — “he’d burned all his bridges,” this person said on condition of anonymity.
The tension between TIllerson and Trump was heightened following NBC News reporting that the former Exxon Mobile mogul openly disparaged the president after a July 20, 2017 meeting at the Pentagon, referring to him as a “moron,” according to three officials familiar with the incident.
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.