Trump set to dump Tillerson; CIA chief Pompeo likely replacement

01 Dec 2017


The White House is readying a plan to force out Secretary of State Rex W Tillerson and install loyalists to President Trump in two top national security positions, according to American publications including The Washington Post and The New York Times, which cited senior administration officials.

Tillerson's relationship with President Trump has been strained, and his ouster would lay the groundwork for another major personnel change in an already turbulent presidency. He is likely to be replaced with CIA director Mike Pompeo.

Pompeo would probably be succeeded at the CIA by Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas and key ally of the president on national security matters, according to the White House plan.

Cotton has signalled that he would accept the job if offered, according to the reports.

The White House has not publicly announced any moves, but the removal of Tillerson is expected to be only the first step in a major shake-up of the State Department.

Being forced out of the administration would represent a dramatic fall for former ExxonMobil chief executive Tillerson, who has struggled to transition from overseeing one of the world's most powerful - and most secretive - corporations to managing a complex bureaucracy and serving a mercurial boss.

The rift between the President and Tillerson was apparent last week when the State Department, in a break with past practice, sent a relatively low-level delegation to accompany Trump's daughter Ivanka to Hyderabad for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (See: Tillerson to skip Hyderabad GES meet in 'snub to White House').

Pompeo has become one of the most personally loyal and politically savvy members of Trump's national security team, while Cotton is one of Trump's most steadfast congressional defenders and a confidant to national security adviser H R McMaster and other top officials.

Tillerson's anticipated departure could come as part of an exodus of administration officials at the one-year mark of Trump's presidency. There has long been speculation that a number of senior staffers who have had difficulties with Trump, including National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, could bolt in the new year.

The plan to remove Tillerson, which is being directed by White House Chief of Staff John F Kelly, is expected to be set in motion over the next few weeks and has broad support within Trump's inner circle, according to Washington Post's sources.

The ouster would end a turbulent reign at the State Department for Tillerson, who has been largely marginalised over the last year. Trump and Tillerson have been at odds over a host of major issues, including the Iran nuclear deal, the confrontation with North Korea and a clash between Arab allies. The secretary was reported to have privately called Trump a ''moron'' and the president publicly criticized Tillerson for ''wasting his time'' with a diplomatic outreach to North Korea.

Through Trump's relationship with Tillerson has soured in recent months, with the president privately bristling at and publicly undermining his secretary of state, it was unclear whether Trump had signed off on the plan. The president has been known to change his mind before finalising decisions with public announcements.

Asked during a meeting Thursday morning with the crown prince of Bahrain, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, whether he wants Tillerson to remain as secretary of state, Trump told reporters simply: "He's here. Rex is here."

Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, asked on Thursday what he made of the reports on Tillerson, dismissed them. "I make nothing of it," he told reporters. "There's nothing to it."

Rumblings of Tillerson's possible ouster add yet another element of uncertainty for lawmakers on Capitol Hill and US allies around the world already anxious about Trump's combativeness and off-the-cuff comments and tweets, especially coming amid tumult at home and abroad.

Tensions between the United States and North Korea are escalating. Trump this week has also been feuding with British Prime Minister Theresa May over his Wednesday tweets sharing inflammatory and misleading anti-Islam videos from the far-right Britain First party, a group known for targeting Muslims.

In Washington, the White House and Republican lawmakers are scrambling to avert a government shutdown and pass their sweeping tax-cut bill, which would be the president's first major legislative achievement.

Throughout the fall, Tillerson's departure has been widely expected, given his rocky relationship with the president - he reportedly called Trump a "moron" after a meeting at the Pentagon - and his shrinking number of boosters inside the administration. Trump has grown frustrated at negative news coverage of Tillerson and has taken to asking others about him, something he often does before cutting ties, according to one senior administration official and one adviser.

Replacing him with Pompeo could presage a dramatic change. While many veteran diplomats have expressed disappointment in Tillerson for the way he has run the State Department, they see him as a pragmatic figure in the Situation Room. Pompeo, a former congressman from the Tea Party wing of the party, would likely be more hawkish on Iran, North Korea and other key issues.

But his appointment could produce a more consistent public message on foreign policy for an administration that has spoken in multiple voices. Trump and Tillerson have often seemed to describe contradictory policies, a confusion only exacerbated by the presence of other voices like Nikki R Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations, and Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and conduit to certain foreign countries.

But while there is almost universal agreement within the West Wing that Tillerson's days are numbered, the timing and circumstances of his exit - as well as his replacement - have not yet been finalised.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not dispute reports about the plan to replace Tillerson, saying he is working to "close out what has been a successful year" and "there are no personnel announcements at this time".

Asked at her afternoon news briefing whether Trump has confidence in Tillerson, Sanders would not answer explicitly. "When the president loses confidence in someone they will no longer serve in the capacity that they're in," she said.

One senior administration official said Tillerson's departure could come in a couple of weeks or in a couple of months but is being actively discussed by Trump and Kelly. "It's just a matter of ripping the Band-Aid off," the official said.

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