Tillerson out at the State Department

Current CIA director Mike Pompeo will take over as secretary of state.

Outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Thursday, October 5, 2017 (CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Thursday, October 5, 2017 (CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Rex Tillerson was ousted from his role as secretary of state on Tuesday, making room for current CIA Director Mike Pompeo to take over the department’s top spot. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) was originally thought to be Pompeo’s replacement when rumors about Tillerson’s departure were first floated back in November, but according to the Washington Post, that role will now go to deputy director Gina Hapsel.

“I am proud to nominate the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo, to be our new Secretary of State,” President Trump said in a statement to the Post on Tuesday morning. “Mike graduated first in his class at West Point, served with distinction in the U.S. Army, and graduated with Honors from Harvard Law School. He went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives with a proven record of working across the aisle.”

He added, “Gina Haspel, the Deputy Director of the CIA, will be nominated to replace Director Pompeo and she will be the CIA’s first-ever female director, a historic milestone. Mike and Gina have worked together for more than a year, and have developed a great mutual respect.”

The president also issued a clipped, generic statement on Tillerson himself. “I want to thank Rex Tillerson for his service. A great deal has been accomplished over the last fourteen months, and I wish him and his family well,” he said.

According to Steve Goldstein, the State Department’s undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, Tillerson was not given a reason for his dismissal and had not spoken to Trump.

“The secretary did not speak to the president 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,” Goldstein said in a statement. “The secretary had every intention of staying because of the critical progress made in national security. He will miss his colleagues at the Department of State and the foreign ministers he has worked with throughout the world.”

Goldstein also contradicted the White House’s statement later on Tuesday morning, saying that Tillerson had found out he was fired after Trump tweeted the news, according to CNN’s Elise Labott.

Tillerson’s departure comes as no surprise to those following the ongoing breakdown at the State Department. Following months of back and forth over a number of topics, the tense relationship between the secretary of state and the president came to a head on Tuesday, after Tillerson broke with the White House on the issue of Russian spy poisonings. On Monday, hours after press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dodged reporter questions about whether the United States believed Russia was to blame for the series of attacks on ex-spies living in the U.K. — contradicting U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s fiery rebuke of the country and threats of sanctions — Tillerson issued his own comments to reporters, saying that the attacks had “clearly” come from Russia.

In an official State Department statement on Monday evening, Tillerson added that Russia was “an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens.”

According to Sanders, Tillerson was asked to leave the administration on Friday, ahead of his comments on Russia this week.

Pressure between the two sides has been mounting for some time: in November, top official Maliz Beams, brought on to oversee a massive departmental overhaul, resigned her post, three months after her initial appointment. According to BuzzFeed News, which first broke the story, Beams, the former CEO of VOYA Financial, had clashed with Tillerson over his redesign plans and was unhappy with its parameters.

“Maliz Beams is stepping away from her role here at the Department of State and is returning to her home in Boston. Effective immediately, [deputy chief of staff] Christine Ciccone will step in to lead the redesign effort and manage its daily activities,” a spokesperson told reporters.

Ciccone has significantly less experience than her predecessor, as ThinkProgress previously reported.

Beams was the second high-profile figure to leave the State Department around that time. On November 20, official spokespersons announced that Acting Chief Information Officer Frontis Wiggins, who has been in his current position since last year, would be retiring on December 8. Wiggins, who had served in government for more than 30 years, was replaced by principal deputy chief information officer Robert Adams.

Both Beams’ and Wiggins’ departures came at a tense time for Tillerson, who had faced criticism over his apparent inability to fill crucial roles within the State Department. In August, the Los Angeles Times reported that Tillerson’s refusal to hire staffers for special envoy positions and foreign service or diplomatic posts had drained morale and left existing employees floundering.

“There is a dearth of clear information — no sense of who is making decisions or how…no sense of dialogue or trust,” one senior official told the outlet. “Even if the positions are filled in the coming years, it will require a long period of rebuilding relationships that diplomats count on [to do their jobs].”

That struggle seemed not to bother Tillerson, who “embraced a White House proposal to slash the combined State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development budget by nearly a third [in 2018], from $54.9 billion to $37.6 billion,” according to the LA Times. Nor did it trouble President Trump, who waved off concerns over the department’s mass of empty desks in early November by calling it a “cost-saving” decision.

“We don’t need all the people that they want. Don’t forget, I’m a businessperson and I tell my people, ‘Where you don’t need to fill slots don’t fill them,'” he said, during an interview with Fox News host Laura Ingraham.

He added, “The one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be. …It’s called cost saving. There’s nothing wrong with cost saving.”

Trump claimed in that same interview that Tillerson was “in there working hard” and was “doing his best” to run the department, but behind closed doors, the two had reportedly begun to grow distant.

In the months leading up to Tillerson’s departure, he and Trump frequently butted heads over policy minutiae as well as larger, more visible issues.

On North Korea, for instance, Tillerson told reporters in September that the United States was “not in a dark situation, a blackout” with Pyongyang, and that officials were willing to use diplomatic means to try and convince leader Kim Jong-un to wind down his nuclear aggressions.

“We ask, ‘Would you like to talk?'” Tillerson said. “We have lines of communications to Pyongyang — we’re not in a dark situation, a blackout. We have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang.”

One day later, Trump directly undermined his own secretary of state on Twitter, writing glibly, “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man. …Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”

In June, the two butted heads over the growing crisis in Qatar, which had met the ire of its gulf neighbors over alleged support of extremist factions. The situation was tenuous: Tillerson issued a statement in response to a Saudi-led blockade in which he detailed the need for de-escalation in the region, calling on the league of Arab nations behind it to instead employ mediation.

“This process requires regional and global consensus and mutual understanding,” Tillerson wrote. “We ask that there be no further escalation by the parties in the region. We call on Qatar to be responsive to the concerns of its neighbors.”

He added that the blockade had created “a hardship on the people of Qatar and the people whose livelihoods depend on commerce with Qatar.”

An hour later, addressing reporters in a Rose Garden press conference, Trump called the blockade “hard but necessary,” and insisted that Qatar had been “a funder of terrorism at a very high level.”

“Our great generals and military people,” he added, “the time has come to call on Qatar to end that funding…and its extremist ideology.”

Earlier in the month, the president had taken an even more aggressive stance on the controversy, tweeting at one point, “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!”

The back and forth between Trump and Tillerson came to a head in early October, when it was revealed that Tillerson had allegedly called Trump a “fucking moron” during a meeting with high-ranking officials. NBC News later reported that the original comment had occurred following a July 20 national security meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. According to the outlet, Tillerson was responding to Trump’s earlier comment of wanting to increase the country’s nuclear arsenal tenfold.

A State Department spokesperson later denied the report, although Tillerson did not specifically deny calling the president a moron.

It’s unclear whether Defense Secretary Mattis and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin — who reportedly agreed to a “suicide-pact” with Tillerson, wherein the remaining two would resign should one of them be ousted — will vacate their posts as well, given Tillerson’s departure. Tillerson, for his part, has denied that such an agreement exists.

The decision to fire Tillerson comes at a tenuous time: as the Post notes, the president is currently preparing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to discuss the nation’s continued nuclear ambitions and missile launches; the White House is also in the midst of trade talks, having recently issued an announcement outlining its intent to levy tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. The announcement has already attracted backlash from European Union leaders, who issued their own retaliatory tariffs on dozens of U.S.-made products.

Both Pompeo and Haspel issued their own separate statements on Tuesday morning, following news of Tillerson’s departure.

“I am deeply grateful to President Trump for permitting me to serve as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and for this opportunity to serve as Secretary of State,” Pompeo said. “His leadership has made America safer and I look forward to representing him and the American people to the rest of the world to further America’s prosperity.”

Added Haspel, “After 30 years as an officer of the Central Intelligence Agency, it has been my honor to serve as its Deputy Director alongside Mike Pompeo for the past year. I am grateful to President Trump for the opportunity, and humbled by his confidence in me, to be nominated to be the next Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.”

This article has been updated with additional comments from the State Department and to clarify the contradictory timeline surrounding Tillerson’s firing offered by the White House.