WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday and said he would nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him, in a major staff reshuffle just as Trump dives into high-stakes talks with North Korea.
“We disagreed on things,” Trump said of Tillerson just after announcing the firing on Twitter. He mentioned differences over how to handle the Iran nuclear deal, from which Trump wants to withdraw if it is not changed to his satisfaction. “When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible,” Trump said, whereas Tillerson thought “it was okay. I wanted to either break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently. So we were not really thinking the same.”
Trump announced the change in a tweet early Tuesday just four hours after Tillerson returned to Washington from a trip to Africa. Word of Trump’s dissatisfaction with Tillerson and plans to replace him had circulated for months, even as Tillerson insisted he didn’t plan to leave.
“Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State,” Trump tweeted. “He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!”
Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2018
Trump said that the CIA’s deputy director, Gina Haspel, would take over for Pompeo at the intelligence agency. If confirmed, Haspel would be the CIA’s first female director.
According to reports, Tillerson found out about his ouster from Trump’s tweet.
Tillerson did not speak to Trump before he was sacked and has not been given a reason for his ouster, a top aide said.
“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,” Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein said.
“We wish Secretary-Designate Pompeo well,” he added, in a series of tweets from his official account.
Rumors about friction between Trump and Tillerson were circulating last year. In October, NBC news reported that Tillerson called the president a “moron,” something Tillerson never actually denied. Tillerson continued to insist his relationship with the president was solid and brushed off rumors of strain between them.
Trump told reporters that he made the decision to oust Tillerson “by myself.”
The president added that Tillerson will be “much happier now,” and he appreciates his service.
The two had disagreed over the Iran nuclear deal. Iran agreed before Trump took office to curb its nuclear program in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions. The president regularly criticizes the agreement as a bad deal and has repeatedly threatened to end it.
Trump spoke Tuesday of his desire to break the deal, but noted that Tillerson “felt a little bit differently, so we were not really thinking the same.”
The move came days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Trump. Netanyahu said ending or fixing the Iran deal took up most of their conversation.
Two officials familiar with the situation said that Tillerson had been fired by Trump on Friday, while in Africa. There were no obvious indications as Tillerson flew home early Tuesday from Nigeria that his departure was imminent, nor that it was his last trip abroad as top diplomat.
But Tillerson had cut short his trip by one night, telling reporters he had been sick in Africa and had barely slept two nights in a row because of urgent, middle-of-the-night matters, including the North Korea announcement.
“I felt like, look, I just need to get back,” Tillerson said.
Dismissing Tillerson had been discussed at multiple levels for a long time, said a senior White House official, adding that the North Korea overture and invitation brought more urgency to the decision. Two officials said Trump wanted to have a new team in place ahead of an upcoming meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as well as trade talks.
The officials weren’t authorized to speak publicly and demanded anonymity.
Tillerson also was known for his Russia connections. Trump’s announcement came the day after the Republican-controlled House Intelligence committee announced it found no collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia.
Tillerson had been slated to retire from Exxon in March 2017 at age 65 under the company’s mandatory retirement policy. Paid $27.3 million in 2016, Tillerson has accumulated roughly $160 million in Exxon stock along with $149 million of unvested stock options, according to a proxy statement the company filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Haspel is a career spymaster who once ran an agency prison in Thailand where terror suspects were subjected to a harsh interrogation technique that the president has supported.
She briefly ran a secret CIA prison where accused terrorists Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri were waterboarded in 2002. That’s according to current and former US intelligence officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the issue.