WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump unceremoniously dumped Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday — via Twitter — and picked CIA Director Mike Pompeo to shift from America's spy chief to its top diplomat. The abrupt announcement ended the turbulent tenure of the man who reportedly called the president a "moron" but wanted to stay, and deepened the disarray in the Trump administration.
The plans to oust Tillerson had been drawn up months ago, but the timing caught even senior White House officials unawares. The firing was just the latest in an exodus of administration officials, including those in Trump's inner circle, with the president already setting records for staff turnover and several other Cabinet secretaries facing ethics investigations.
However, Trump emphatically rejected talk of chaos in his year-old administration as he nears a pivotal moment on the international stage with his planned meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He declared Tuesday, "I'm really at a point where we're getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want."
He said he was nominating the CIA's deputy director, Gina Haspel, to take over for Pompeo at the intelligence agency. If confirmed, Haspel would be the CIA's first female director
As for Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil CEO whom Trump picked as his administration's top Cabinet official, the president said simply, "we disagreed on things."
No doubt that was true, one prime example being the agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear efforts. Trump's change puts Pompeo, an ardent foe of the Iran nuclear deal, in charge of U.S. diplomacy as the president decides whether to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement. Tillerson has pushed Trump to remain and had been pursuing a delicate strategy with European allies and others to try to improve or augment the Obama-era deal to Trump's liking.
"We were not really thinking the same," said Trump.
Public policy aside, in the view of current and former White House officials, Tillerson's "moron" comment to senior administration officials last summer — and the subsequent revelation in the press — permanently eroded trust between the two men and it was only a matter of time before Tillerson would be pushed out.
Tillerson himself, his voice occasionally quavering, gave brief farewell remarks at the State Department, thanking department staff and diplomats around the world — but not mentioning Trump except to say that he'd spoken by phone to the president Tuesday while Trump was on Air Force One, hours after the tweeted firing.
The gulf that separated the two men was illustrated one last time by conflicting stories on the circumstances of the firing.
Trump kept the timing to an unusually close circle that included Chief of Staff John Kelly and Vice President Mike Pence, officials said. Pompeo was brought into the White House Friday after returning from an overseas trip and was offered the job formally by phone Saturday.
Kelly was given the task of phoning Tillerson, who was in Africa, but the nature of their conversation was up for dispute. White House officials said Kelly told Tillerson that Trump wanted a change and he should step down. Tillerson, the White House said, asked that Trump wait until he returned to the U.S., and he shortened his trip to Africa — where much of his mission revolved around softening the impact of Trump's recent reported criticisms.