- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2018

President Trump unceremoniously fired Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson Tuesday, ending his shaky relationship with his top diplomat and handing the key post to CIA Director Mike Pompeo, an adviser who is increasingly trusted by Mr. Trump to tackle decisions on crucial areas such as North Korea and Iran.

Although Mr. Tillerson’s ouster had been expected for months, the president delivered the official blow in a tweet a few hours after the secretary of state returned to the U.S. from a diplomatic mission to Africa.

Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job!” the president tweeted. “Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service!”

White House aides said presidential Chief of Staff John F. Kelly called Mr. Tillerson twice during his trip to Africa to warn him that his status was in jeopardy, prompting the secretary to return to Washington a day earlier than planned.

When the decisive tweet was posted, a Tillerson aide said the president never explained to the secretary of state the reason he was fired and that Mr. Tillerson wanted to keep his job.

“The secretary had every intention of staying because of critical progress made in national security,” said Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein. “The secretary did not speak to the president and is unaware of the reason.”

SEE ALSO: Trump’s CIA pick Haspel will have to answer torture allegations to win job: Wyden

After Mr. Goldstein issued that statement, the White House notified Mr. Goldstein that he, too, was fired.

A senior White House official said Mr. Trump made the move to ensure his new team was in place in advance of talks with North Korea and “various ongoing trade negotiations.”

The firing of Mr. Tillerson removed the most prominent Cabinet member yet in an administration with a high rate of turnover.

Mr. Trump said he respects and likes Mr. Tillerson but has had numerous policy disagreements with him over the past 14 months.

Rex and I have been talking about this for a long time,” the president said. “We disagreed on things, like the Iran [nuclear] deal. I think it’s terrible. I guess he thought it’s OK. I wanted to either break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently. We were not really thinking the same. It was a different mindset.”

The president added, “I think Rex will be much happier now.”

Mr. Tillerson seemed anything but happy several hours later as he gave a televised farewell statement at the State Department. Without mentioning Mr. Trump’s name, he said the president called him from Air Force One around noon on his way to California “to ensure we have clarity as to the days ahead.”

“What is most important is to ensure an orderly and smooth transition during a time that the country continues to face significant policy and national security challenges,” said Mr. Tillerson, adding that he would delegate all responsibilities to Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan by the end of the day. He said his commission will end at midnight on March 31.

Mr. Tillerson said he exceeded expectations in helping to place maximum pressure on North Korea. He heaped praise on members of the U.S. Foreign Service and spoke of more work to be done on Syria, China, Russia and North Korea.

At the end of his eight-minute statement, he took no questions and never thanked Mr. Trump.

“I’ll now return to private life as a private citizen, as a proud American, proud of the opportunity I’ve had to serve my country,” he said.

The president also announced his nomination of Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel to become the first woman to lead the spy agency. Respected by her peers, the longtime operative nevertheless faces a tough Senate confirmation over questions about her role in the waterboarding of terrorism suspects after the 9/11 attacks.

Mr. Pompeo, a former House lawmaker from Kansas, has developed a close relationship with the president at the head of the CIA. The job has put the two men in regular contact for the highly classified presidential daily brief, a summary of national security emergencies.

“I respect his intellect. We have a very good relationship — for whatever reason, chemistry,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “We’re always on the same wavelength. The relationship has been very good, and that’s what I need as secretary of state.”

Mr. Pompeo and Ms. Haspel will need to be confirmed by the Senate, where Republicans hold a slim majority of 51 seats. Mr. Trump has accepted an invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un by May for historic talks on denuclearization, but the timeline for getting Mr. Pompeo confirmed by then is uncertain.

Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, signaled that he would schedule a confirmation hearing next month for Mr. Pompeo. Given that the Senate is scheduled to be off for a two-week vacation surrounding Easter, the hearing could be no earlier than the week of April 9.

After his hearing, Mr. Pompeo would have to clear a committee vote and a full floor vote.

A high-level foreign diplomat from East Asia told The Washington Times that Mr. Pompeo’s surprise appointment as secretary of state was unlikely to derail the delicate momentum around the increase in diplomacy with North Korea.

The diplomat acknowledged the uncertainty over how quickly Mr. Pompeo may be confirmed but said the appointment was not surprising because regional leaders see the CIA director to be closer to Mr. Trump than Mr. Tillerson has been when it comes to sensitive intelligence relating to the North Korea crisis.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said if the nominee is confirmed, “we hope that Mr. Pompeo will turn over a new leaf and will start toughening up our policies towards Russia” and President Vladimir Putin.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Mr. Pompeo would make an excellent secretary of State.

“The president has called upon a brilliant, tough-minded leader to guide our diplomatic corps through challenging days ahead,” he said.

Mr. McConnell said Ms. Haspel, who joined the CIA in 1985, “has repeatedly proven to be a consummate intelligence officer and leader.”

Mr. Trump, who asserted last week that he enjoys conflict and disagreement among his advisers, said after more than a year in office that he believes his team is coming together.

“I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want,” he said.

Mr. Tillerson came to the helm of the State Department from his job as CEO of ExxonMobil Corp. and never seemed comfortable in the post or in his relationship with the president. He clashed with career Foreign Service members who considered him insular, and the White House gave him the unpopular job of imposing budget cuts of 30 percent at the department.

His rocky tenure in the past 14 months was spiked by tensions with the White House on issues such as Mr. Trump’s desire to pull out of the Paris climate accord and speculation on multiple occasions that Mr. Trump may have grown frustrated with him.

The two men have not seen eye to eye on various foreign policy challenges, most notably last year when Mr. Tillerson stood up for the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar in its spat with Saudi Arabia, which Mr. Trump was seen to be backing.

Mr. Tillerson also reportedly referred to the president as a “moron” last year during a meeting at the Pentagon, prompting Mr. Trump to respond that he could outperform the secretary of state in an IQ test.

Lawmakers generally praised Mr. Tillerson’s service.

The secretary’s last trip abroad exposed differences with the president. Mr. Tillerson asserted Monday night that Russia was responsible for the poisoning of a former British spy, a statement that went well beyond comments from the White House at the time.

Mr. Tillerson also downplayed the startling news that Mr. Trump had accepted the invitation for a historic meeting with North Korea’s leader. On Tuesday, Mr. Trump acknowledged that he had accepted the invitation without speaking about it with Mr. Tillerson.

Some national security insiders, meanwhile, have mused during recent months that Mr. Pompeo might be a stronger fit for secretary of state because of his focus on the North Korea crisis.

One of Mr. Pompeo’s signature moves as CIA director was the creation last year of a Korea Mission Center focused on examining the North Korean missile threat and how best to manage the crisis.

Critics expressed concern that Mr. Pompeo’s hawkish views would make conflict more likely with North Korea and Iran, as Mr. Trump seeks to revoke the nuclear deal with Tehran.

Mr. Trump said Mr. Pompeo’s “experience in the military, Congress and as leader of the CIA have prepared him well for his new role, and I urge his swift confirmation.”

He said Ms. Haspel will set a “historic milestone” if confirmed for the CIA post.

Mike and Gina have worked together for more than a year and have developed a great mutual respect,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Pompeo said in a statement that he is “deeply grateful” to the president for the opportunity.

“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,” Mr. Pompeo said. “If confirmed, I look forward to guiding the world’s finest diplomatic corps in formulating and executing the president’s foreign policy.”

He said the CIA “will continue to thrive under the leadership of Gina Haspel.”

Ms. Haspel said she was humbled by the president’s confidence in her.

“If confirmed, I look forward to providing President Trump the outstanding intelligence support he has grown to expect during his first year in office,” she said.

Several civil rights groups voiced opposition to both nominations, saying Ms. Haspel’s overseeing of waterboarding and Mr. Pompeo’s “Islamophobic” views should disqualify them.

“These appointments have the potential to harm our nation’s image and our relations with key players in the international community,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Stephen Dinan, S.A. Miller and Sally Persons contributed to this article.

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