President Trump announced Tuesday morning that Rex Tillerson is out as Secretary of State. The White House claimed it informed Tillerson he was being asked to step down on Friday, which may explain why he broke from the White House Monday when he condemned Russia for the poisoning of a British spy. Conversely, CNN also reported that Tillerson said that he only learned he was out from Trump’s tweet Tuesday morning.
Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned last Sunday with a nerve agent developed in Russia, and remain in critical condition. Prime Minister Theresa May responded by saying it’s “highly likely” that Russia is responsible for the attack, noting that the country is capable of producing the chemical and has a history of state-sponsored assassination, including defectors.
Speaking to the press on a flight on Monday, Tillerson echoed May’s comments, describing the poisoning as part of a “certain unleashing of activity” by Russia that would “certainly trigger a response.” While it remains unclear whether Russia’s government knew of the attack, he said the nerve agent definitely “came from Russia.” Tillerson also revealed that he told British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson that he’s “extremely concerned” about Russia, and his efforts to push the Trump administration to resolve differences with the Kremlin “didn’t get very far.”
But these comments directly contradicted what White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was saying — perhaps even simultaneously — during Monday’s press briefing. She was specifically questioned about the poisoning, but refused on three different occasions to even utter the word “Russia,” describing the attack as “reckless, indiscriminate, and irresponsible.”
When pressed on whether or not the U.S. was blaming Russia, Sanders simply said, “Right now, we are standing with our U.K. ally,” suggesting, “I think they’re still working through even some of the details of that.” That’s despite the fact the British had already said the chemical must have come from Russia and that the attack was clearly targeted, not “indiscriminate.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry has called the U.K.’s accusations “a circus show in the British Parliament.”
The State Department said Tuesday morning that Tillerson never spoke to Trump and is unaware of why he was asked to step down. “The secretary had every intention of staying because of the critical progress made in national security,” the statement said.
CNN’s Elise Labott also reported that Steve Goldstein, Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy, said that Tillerson only learned of the ouster from Trump’s tweet Tuesday morning. “It is possible that Secretary Tillerson did get a call from someone kind of giving him a heads up,” she said. “He might have had an inkling that something was going on, but he was not officially notified by anyone in the administration and learned this morning of his firing.”
One State Department official also reportedly claimed that Tillerson only learned of his ouster Tuesday morning from Trump’s tweet, not Friday as the White House suggests.
In comments to the press Tuesday morning, Trump called Tillerson a “very good man,” but admitted they had disagreed on many issues, such as the Iran agreement. Trump also said he didn’t consult Tillerson before agreeing to meet with North Korea. “I made that decision by myself,” Trump disclosed.
Trump also said he was planning to speak to May on Tuesday, saying that it sounded like Russia might be responsible for the poisoning. “I would take that finding as fact,” he said.
Trump, has a long history of avoiding blaming Russia for its actions, as was evident in the caveat in his following remark. “As soon as we get the facts straight — if we agree with them — we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”