WASHINGTON — The US State Department said Thursday that rumors that President Donald Trump is considering firing top diplomat Rex Tillerson are false, amid mixed signals from the White House over his fate.
The State Department said White House chief of staff John Kelly disputed reports of a plan to replace Tillerson as secretary of state.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Kelly called Tillerson’s chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, to say the “rumors are not true.”
Nauert said Tillerson serves at the president’s pleasure and remains in his role until told otherwise. She said that Tillerson “brushed this off today” because he’s heard such stories before. She added that Tillerson is “going about his business” and will travel to Europe on an official trip starting Monday.
After months of clashes on policy and personality, Administration officials had said earlier on Thursday the White House was developing a plan to replace Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo but the timetable for a change was uncertain. They were not authorized to publicly discuss internal thinking and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The White House plan, which Trump had not yet signed off on, would force a major realignment early in his term, also creating a vacancy atop the CIA that officials said could be filled by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas. The overhaul could produce a significant shift in both the tone and direction of the president’s foreign policy, removing it from the understated former oil man whose style has never fit well with Trump’s.
It is exceedingly rare for a secretary of state, America’s face on the global stage, to be fired or to serve for a year or less. Nor is it common for presidents to have such a significant cabinet revamp so soon after taking office. Too much churn could fuel the perception of chaos in the Trump White House — perhaps one reason he has yet to pull the trigger.
Tillerson’s possible ouster, which was first reported by The New York Times, loomed awkwardly over an Oval Office meeting Thursday between Trump and the visiting Bahraini crown prince. Asked by a reporter whether he wanted Tillerson to stay on the job, Trump was coy, merely pointing out that Tillerson was in fact in the building.
“He’s here. Rex is here,” the president said.
The timing for any move was uncertain.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Tillerson’s closest ally in the administration, simply brushed off the report. “There’s nothing to it,” he said when asked.
But White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders didn’t deny it. She did suggest that no move was imminent, saying the president and Tillerson planned to “work together to close out what we’ve seen to be an incredible year.”
Does the president still have confidence in Tillerson? “When the president loses confidence in someone, they will no longer serve in the capacity that they’re in,” she said.
Friction between the president and the nation’s top diplomat has grown increasingly public through the year.
After a report last month that Tillerson had called the president a “moron,” Tillerson was forced to appear before cameras at the State Department to pledge fealty his boss. Soon after, Trump publicly challenged his secretary to an IQ match.
For Tillerson, who left his job as Exxon Mobil’s CEO, a premature departure from the Cabinet has seemed increasingly inevitable.
“There’s been a Tillerson death watch since the spring,” said Derek Chollet, a former State Department, Pentagon, and National Security Council official in the Obama administration.
When Tillerson was tapped for the job late last year, many Trump critics expressed quiet relief that he’d picked a sober “adult” who could form a counterweight to the president’s brasher, impulsive approach, especially on critical matters of war and peace.
Yet divisions on key foreign policy issues emerged quickly, and Trump has repeatedly undermined Tillerson by voicing positions at odds with those the State Department was pushing.
When Tillerson in June called on Arab nations to ease their blockade on Qatar, Trump emerged in the Rose Garden hours later to lambaste Qatar for funding terrorism. Trump also deemed diplomacy with North Korea a waste of time, when Tillerson was pursuing just that. Tillerson’s advice to Trump to stay in the Paris climate deal and certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal was similarly overruled.
Pompeo, in contrast, has formed a tight relationship with Trump that’s led to a role much broader than many past CIA chiefs. A former businessman and conservative Republican congressman from Kansas, Pompeo is at the White House nearly every day to deliver the daily intelligence briefing, a task often delegated to less senior officials. He sometimes stays longer to accompany Trump to other meetings. He shares the president’s hardline stance against Iran.
Cotton, a top contender to take over at CIA, has been one of Trump’s staunchest defenders on foreign policy in Congress. Yet moving him would create a Senate vacancy just as Republicans need every vote possible. Under Arkansas law, if Cotton steps down before next July, the state’s Republican governor would appoint a replacement who would serve until the November 2018 election. If Cotton stays in the Senate, his current term doesn’t end until 2020.
Cotton’s office wouldn’t comment other than to say: “Senator Cotton’s focus is on serving Arkansans in the Senate.”
Several administration officials said that Pompeo has said previously he’s open to the job.