WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump is considering a plan to oust Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has had a strained relationship with his boss over North Korea and other issues, senior administration officials said on Thursday.
Tillerson would be replaced by CIA director Mike Pompeo, known as a Trump loyalist, within weeks under a White House plan to carry out the most significant staff shakeup so far of the Trump administration.
Republican Senator Tom Cotton would be tapped to replace Pompeo at the Central Intelligence Agency, the officials told Reuters.
It was not immediately clear whether Trump had given final approval to the latest staff shakeup, but one of the officials said the president asked for the plan to be put together.
Tillerson’s long-rumored departure would end a troubled tenure for the former Exxon Mobil Corp chief executive who has been increasingly at odds with Trump over policy challenges such as North Korea and under fire for his planned cuts at the State Department.
Tillerson was reported in October to have privately called Trump a “moron,” something which the secretary of state sought to dismiss. That followed a tweet by Trump a few days earlier that Tillerson should not waste his time by seeking negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear and missile program.
Trump asked John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, to develop the transition strategy and it has already been discussed with other officials, one administration source said.
Under the plan, which was first reported by the New York Times, the staff reshuffle would happen around the end of the year or shortly afterward.
Asked if he wanted Tillerson to remain in his job, Trump sidestepped the question on Thursday, telling reporters at the White House: “He’s here. Rex is here.”
“There are no personnel announcements at this time,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders later told reporters.
Tillerson’s departure has been widely rumored for months, with attention focused on Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the United Nations, as his likely replacement. But Pompeo, a former member of Congress, has increasingly moved to the forefront as he has gained Trump’s trust on national security matters.
Tillerson, 65, has spent much of his tenure trying to smooth the rough edges of Trump’s unilateralist “America First” foreign policy, with limited success.
On several occasions, the US president publicly undercut his diplomatic initiatives. A source familiar with Tillerson’s thinking said Tillerson’s original plan when he took the job as top US diplomat, was to leave in February.
“His plan was to make it a year and then find a reason to leave. Who knows if that still holds?” the source said.
Senator Bob Corker, a senior voice in US foreign policy, spoke to Tillerson on Thursday and said the secretary of state was unaware of any plans to oust him. If carried out, the staff changes would be the latest in a string of departures and firings in Trump’s administration in recent months, including his chief of staff, national security advisor and FBI director.
“There’s so much churn. It feels like whiplash,” a State Department official said.
FOREIGN POLICY HARDLINER
Pompeo, a foreign policy hardliner, especially on Iran, has publicly talked about how the spy agency is becoming more aggressive and how he has been focusing on deploying more CIA officers overseas.
Pompeo has offered effusive praise for Trump in interviews and speeches despite the president’s public criticism of US intelligence agencies and his dismissal of the finding by some of them that Russia conducted an influence campaign to boost Trump over his rival, Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 election.
Pompeo also has downplayed the extent of Russia’s intervention, saying that Moscow has sought to influence US elections for decades. While Trump has expressed deep skepticism of the US intelligence community — he once compared its behavior to that of Nazi Germany — Pompeo has called the president an “avid consumer” of intelligence who is grateful to intelligence professionals.
Tillerson has at times put distance between himself and Trump’s positions. He joined Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in pressing a skeptical Trump not to pull the United States out of an agreement with Iran and world powers over Tehran’s nuclear capabilities.
Tillerson has taken a more hawkish view than Trump on Russia and tried to mediate a dispute among key US Mideast allies, after four Arab nations launched a boycott of Qatar over its alleged Islamist extremist ties.
In late September, while on a trip to Beijing, Tillerson said that Washington was probing North Korea to see whether it is interested in dialogue, and had multiple direct channels of communication with Pyongyang.
The next day, Trump appeared to dismiss those efforts in a tweet, telling Tillerson that he was “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with North Korea.
Tensions have also run high between Tillerson and veteran diplomats who oppose his proposed staff and budget cuts. His tenure has coincided with the departure of dozens of veteran foreign policy hands, and many of the State Department’s senior policy making positions remain unfilled.