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 potential meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after months of harsh rhetoric and rising tensions on Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
The rare firing of the United States’ top diplomat 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.
Critics 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 2015 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.
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.”
At the State Department, a visibly emotional Tillerson said Trump called him around noon from Air Force One, hours after he was summarily dismissed via Twitter. Tillerson also spoke with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.
He said his tenure ends on March 31 but he would delegate his responsibilities to John Sullivan, deputy secretary of state, at the end of Tuesday.
“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, whose voice quivered at times, told reporters in a packed briefing room.
He pointedly declined to thank Trump personally or praise him, as he has done on previous occasions, but emphasized his strong relationship with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Together, the two were seen as a moderating influence on some of Trump’s policies.
However, Tillerson, also presided over a State Department which saw its role vastly diminished, with several high-profile posts unoccupied and many allies questioning the efficacy of dealing with a diplomat they suspected never had Trump’s ear.
In contrast, 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 Central Intelligence Agency job, is seen as a Trump loyalist who has enjoyed a less hostile relationship with career spies than Tillerson had with career diplomats.
Trump chose the CIA’s deputy director, Gina Haspel, to replace Pompeo there. 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.
Senior White House officials said Trump wanted his new team in place before any summit with Kim, who invited the U.S. president to meet by May after months of escalating tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
Tillerson listed several foreign policy objectives Washington was working on and singled out Russia for its “troubling behavior and actions.”