WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday 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 works toward a meeting with the leader of North Korea.
Tillerson’s dismissal capped months of friction between the Republican president and the 65-year-old former Exxon Mobil Corp chief executive. The tensions peaked last fall amid reports Tillerson had called Trump a“moron” and considered resigning. Tillerson never denied using the word.
Some foreign policy experts expressed dismay at the decision to swap out top diplomats so soon before the unprecedented meeting and worried that Pompeo would encourage Trump to scrap the Iran nuclear deal and be hawkish on North Korea.
Critics said the move would sow more instability in the volatile Trump administration and marks the departure of another moderate who sought to emphasize the United States’ strong ties to its allies amid Trump’s criticism. Last week, top economic adviser Gary Cohn quit after Trump announced trade tariffs that would affect U.S. allies.
Trump chose the Central Intelligence Agency’s deputy director, Gina Haspel, to replace Pompeo at the CIA. A veteran CIA clandestine officer, Haspel is backed by many in the U.S. intelligence community but is regarded warily by some in Congress for her involvement in the agency’s“black site” detention facilities.
Trump announced the changes in a morning Twitter post and later told reporters more about why he removed Tillerson.
“We got along actually quite well but we disagreed on things,” Trump said.“When you look at the Iran deal: I think it’s terrible, I guess he thinks it was OK. I wanted to break it or do something and he felt a little bit differently.”
Later at the State Department, Tillerson told reporters that Trump called him around noon from Air Force One and that he had also spoken with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.
“What is most important is to ensure an orderly and smooth transition during a time that the country continues to face significant policy and national security challenges,” Tillerson told reporters in a packed briefing room.
He said his tenure ends on March 31 but he was delegating his responsibilities to John Sullivan, deputy secretary of state, at the end of Tuesday.
Trump said he and Pompeo have“a similar thought process.”
Pompeo, a former Army officer who represented a Kansas district in the House of Representatives before taking the CIA job, is seen as a Trump loyalist who has enjoyed a less hostile relationship with career spies than Tillerson had with career diplomats.
Senior White House officials said Trump wanted his new team in place before any summit with Kim Jong Un, who invited the U.S. president to meet by May after months of escalating tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
TILLERSON UNCLEAR ON REASON
Tillerson’s imminent departure had been rumored for several months, and Trump said he and Tillerson had discussed the move. But Steve Goldstein, a State Department undersecretary of state for public affairs, said Tillerson did not know why he was being pushed out and had intended to stay.
Goldstein was fired later on Tuesday, two U.S. officials told Reuters.
Foreign policy experts from Republican and Democratic administrations also questioned Trump’s timing and choice, noting that Pompeo was known as a political partisan who strongly opposed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Evans Revere, a former senior U.S. diplomat who dealt with North Korea under President George W. Bush, said Trump’s move sends“a bad signal about the role of diplomacy.”
“Tillerson’s replacement by … Pompeo, who is known as a political partisan and an opponent of the Iran agreement, raises the prospect of the collapse of that deal, and increases the possibility that the administration might soon face not one, but two nuclear crises,” he said.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Patricia Zengerle, David Brunnstrom, Arshad Mohammed, Susan Heavey, Paul Simao, Lisa Lambert; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Bill Trott and Jonathan Oatis