Donald Trump has fired his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson without offering his outgoing chief diplomat an explanation in what is the latest indication of a White House in chaos as high-profile officials continue to exit the administration with little or no forewarning.
The change comes at a delicate time for US diplomacy, with the President having just accepted an invitation to hold face-to-face talks with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, about the nuclear threat posed by Pyongyang. There are suggestions that Mr Trump wanted to make the change before the North Korea talks, but it is unusual for such a big change to be made at such a key time.
US foreign policy on Russia also remains an issue. The announcement of the firing was made a day after Mr Tillerson said “we have full confidence” in the UK’s assessment that Russia was likely responsible for a nerve agent attack against a former Russian spy in Salisbury last week. Mr Tillerson’s comments went further than the White House’s initial response, which stopped short of pinning blame on Moscow.
Mr Trump had suggested last week that more changes were coming at the White House, after economic advisor Gary Cohn resigned in the wake of disagreements with the President about his policy on trade tariffs. Mr Trump also lost his Communications Director Hope Hicks late last month after she resigned. Including Mr Tillerson, five people have been fired or resigned from the Trump White House in the last two weeks. The others are John McEntee, personal aide to the president, who was fired on Monday, but will join the Trump 2020 campaign, and Josh Raffel, a White house communications aide.
Stunning Washington once again, Mr Trump made the declaration in an early morning message on Twitter that he was getting rid of Mr Tillerson and replacing him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. The current CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel will step up to take control of the agency.
“We got along actually quite well, but we disagreed on things,” Mr Trump told reporters moments later about his relationship with Mr Tillerson. He said he made the decision to replace Mr Tillerson “by himself”.
Mr Trump said that Mr Tillerson had “been talking about this for a long time” – but an official statement from a member of the State Department said that Mr Tillerson had not been informed by the President that he would be fired.
Mr Trump said that he and Mr Pompeo thought along similar lines, although both he and Ms Haspel may face tough confirmation hearings, with Mr Pompeo having been criticised for claiming that waterboarding does not constitute torture and opposing the closure of Guantanamo Bay. Meanwhile Ms Haspel was previously involved with one of the CIA’s “black site” prisons in Thailand where detainees were subjected to waterboarding and other harrowing interrogation measures that have been widely condemned as torture. Human rights organisations have been quick to condemn the move.
A few hours after the announcement of his departure, an emotional Mr Tillerson confirmed he was handing his day-to day duties to his deputy John Sullivan and his tenure officially ends on 31 March. He said that Mr Trump had called him around noon – about three hours after Mr Trump’s tweet went out – and that he had spoken to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. In the speech about his departure he did not thank Mr Trump once, but praised the “honesty” and “respect” shown by his State Department staff
A source of disagreement between Mr Trump and Mr Tillerson was the Iran nuclear deal, the Obama-era agreement in which Iran agreed to restrict its nuclear programme for at least 10 years in exchange for the loosening of economic sanctions.
“When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible. I guess he thought it was OK,” Mr Trump said. “I wanted to either break it or do something and he felt a little bit differently, so we were not really thinking the same.”
Mr Tillerson had just returned from a shortened trip to Africa hours before Mr Trump’s announcement. According to the New York Times, Mr Tillerson was warned of what was coming from White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who called to tell him to cut his Africa trip short and advised him “you may get a tweet” according to the Associated Press. The White House said that Mr Kelly had made clear that Mr Trump had wanted Mr Tillerson to step aside.
Mr Tillerson’s team said he was feeling unwell on Saturday. Later in the weekend, the State Department said he would shorten his tour by a day. “I felt like, look, I just need to get back,” Mr Tillerson told reporters on his plane home.
In the initial announcement, Mr Trump and the White House focused on Mr Pompeo and the history Mr Trump was making by appointing the first female director of the CIA.
An aide to Mr Tillerson, Under Secretary of State Steve Goldstein, said Mr Trump never explained to Mr Tillerson why he was being dismissed, and that the top diplomat had wanted to remain in the job. Mr Trump’s apparent failure to give Mr Tillerson a reason for why he was being axed creates uncertainty over the soundness of Mr Trump’s decision-making process. A similar situation occurred in May, when the President fired his FBI director James Comey with little warning. In that case, Mr Comey is said to have found out about the President’s decision when he looked at a TV while addressing employees at an FBI field office.
“The Secretary had every intention of remaining because of the tangible progress made on critical national security issues,” Mr Goldstein said in a statement about Mr Tillerson. “He established and enjoyed relationships with his counterparts. He will miss his colleagues at the Department of State and enjoyed working together with the Department of Defense in an uncommonly robust relationship.”
Mr Goldstein continued: “The Secretary did not speak to the President this morning and is unaware of the reason, but he is grateful for the opportunity to serve, and still believes strongly that public service is a noble calling and not to be regretted.”
Mr Goldstein himself was also fired, likely as a result of his statement about Mr Tillerson and contradicting the President’s message. He was reportedly called up by the White House after Mr Tillerson’s firing on Tuesday and told that his services would no longer be needed.
A senior White House official told news outlets that Mr Trump asked Mr Tillerson to step down on Friday, but the President did want not to make the announcement while Mr Tillerson was on a trip to Africa.
Mr Trump and administration officials were said to have been thinking about replacing Mr Tillerson for months.
Last year, Vice President Mike Pence also reportedly had to persuade the top diplomat to stay with the administration after Mr Tillerson was reportedly unhappy with comments Mr Trump made in a speech to the Boy Scouts of America. But in October, the State Department organised an impromptu press briefing in which the Secretary of State denied reports that he wanted to resign.
Mr Tillerson said he would stay in the Trump administration as “long as he is useful”. Meanwhile, critics condemned the way he led the State Department amid reports that Mr Trump has also been unsatisfied with Mr Tillerson’s leadership.
The US’s top diplomat was said to have called Mr Trump a “moron” – a report that Mr Tillerson sought to play down. A department spokesperson later said that the “the Secretary does not use that type of language”.
In December, Mr Tillerson said “diplomacy is not that simple” as the State Department closed out 2017 with no victories.
Several top department posts and ambassadorships also continue to remain vacant. Dozens of countries do not currently have a Senate-confirmed US ambassador in place, including key US allies.
The State Department is never short on foreign policy challenges, with conflicts regarding Russia, North Korea and the Middle East tending to dominate newspaper headlines. But since taking office in January 2017, Mr Trump has indicated a preference for solving issues with military might rather than diplomacy.
The President has consistently proposed increases in defence spending while also suggesting slashes to the State Department’s funds.
The firing of Mr Tillerson will not lead to an improvement in strained ties with Germany, German Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Roth said.
Donald Trump’s first year: in pictures
“The dismissal of Rex #Tillerson does not make anything better,” Mr Roth said in a tweet.
Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, told The Independent that “this is a disaster for American diplomacy”.
“For all his faults, Tillerson was a supporter of military restraint and negotiated solutions to our key security threat,” Mr Cirincione said. “He was a key ally of Defence Secretary Jim Mattis in supporting the nuclear deal with Iran and resisting the illusion of a military solution to the crisis with North Korea. He will now be replaced by an inexperienced hawk who opposed the Iran Deal in Congress.”
Congressman Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that the President had chosen a horrible time to make such a drastic change to the State Department.
“The timing of this move … Couldn’t be worse. Less than a week after announcing a summit with Kim Jong Un – the sort of engagement that will require a diplomatic full-court press – the President has let the world know that he’s throwing an already hollowed-out State Department into further disarray with a transition at the top,” Mr Engel said. “However much I may have disagreed with Secretary Tillerson, to push him out at this moment sends a terrible message to friends and adversaries over the world.”
Although Democrats said they were dismayed by the decision, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer expressed at least a little optimism that the State Department tumult could be coming to an end.
“The instability of this administration in just about every area weakens America,” Mr Schumer tweeted. “If he’s confirmed, we hope that Mr Pompeo will turn over a new leaf and will start toughening up our policies towards Russia and Putin.”