Fourteen months of simmering behind-the-scenes tension between President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson boiled over on Tuesday, with the president announcing the dismissal of his top diplomat on Twitter.
The move was fraught with the miscommunications and contradictions that have characterized the relationship between Trump and Tillerson from the outset. While a White House aide said Kelly told Tillerson on Friday that the president planned to dismiss him, Tillerson’s aides moved quickly to make clear that the former ExxonMobil chief executive, who returned Monday from a multi-country diplomatic trip to Africa, had been caught off guard.
The resulting news coverage, which focused on disarray and disagreement in the Trump administration, left White House chief of staff John Kelly yelling at a television screen aboard Air Force One as he took off for California with the president, according to a source with knowledge of the events.
High-level White aides knew that Tillerson’s dismissal was imminent, but not precisely when it would happen, according to two administration officials. Trump informed some associates of his decision on Monday evening, telling them that he wanted Tillerson gone — and, his successor, CIA director Mike Pompeo in — before any meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a summit Trump agreed to in another surprise move last week after an invitation extended via South Korean diplomats.
Yet Tuesday’s scene was par for the course in Trump’s White House. Kelly himself was elevated to his current job in a Trump tweet sent from Air Force One as his first chief of staff Reince Priebus sat on the tarmac outside the plane.
Kelly informed Tillerson of the president’s decision in a brief conversation on Friday, according to two White House aides; Tillerson, then still overseas, asked that the president hold off until the returned to the country.
The State Department, however, had another version of events: It said in a public statement that Tillerson only learned he’d been fired from the president’s tweet Tuesday morning — and that he remained unclear about the reason why. The White House moved swiftly on Tuesday to fire Steve Goldstein, the State Department official who issued the statement contradicting their official line.
“Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service!” Trump said on Twitter. “Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!”
Pompeo’s move from intelligence chief to chief diplomat puts him at the center of the administration’s foreign policy brain trust — and will change the balance of power within it, bringing to the job a more hawkish outlook than his predecessor and more in line with that of the president.
Trump himself said as much, telling reporters Tuesday: “Rex and I have been talking about this for a long time. We got along actually quite well but we disagreed on things. When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible, I guess he thought it was okay.”
Tillerson, who was recommended for the job by two top George W. Bush administration officials – former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates — never meshed with the iconoclastic president. He opposed the president’s biggest foreign policy decisions: pulling out of the Paris climate accord, decertifying the Iran deal, and moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
He also clashed with the White House over staffing, chafing at limits imposed on his authority in Foggy Bottom. Last summer, he exploded at Priebus and other top White House aides, including son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, during a West Wing meeting, demanding the freedom to staff his own department without interference from the White House.
Perhaps the biggest stumbling block for him, though, was an NBC News report last October indicating that Tillerson had privately referred to Trump as a “moron” — something the secretary of state, in a rare press conference, didn’t explicitly deny. The president, who was at the time on the way to Las Vegas to meet with survivors of a mass shooting at a country music festival, watched Tillerson’s remarks from Air Force One, hollering at the television, according to a person familiar with the events.
Even as Tillerson continued to butt heads with the president, he developed a close relationship with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who remains a Trump favorite and who shares Tillerson’s geopolitical outlook.
Tillerson and Mattis frequently clashed with the president’s more hawkish advisers, including Pompeo, but also U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, whose future in the White House has also been the subject of considerable scrutiny.
Tillerson and Mattis made a pact early in the administration not to contradict each other in front of other administration officials, and Mattis frequently offered support behind the scenes for Tillerson’s views, according to several people familiar with the administration’s deliberations on national security. The situation led one Republican observer to describe Tillerson’s relationship to Mattis as that of “a drowning man clinging to a life raft.”
Pompeo’s elevation will leave Mattis without a key ally in national security deliberations. Haley, who has repeatedly clashed with Tillerson, made her views plain, tweeting on Tuesday, “Congratulations to my good friend and soon to be Secretary of State Mike Pompeo! Great decision by the president.”
Pompeo developed a rapport with Trump during the transition when he helped deliver the President’s Daily Brief — and the president asked him continue to come to the White House to help brief him personally after he was sworn into office, something that has drawn Pompeo away from Langley and put him increasingly inside the West Wing. A graduate of West Point and Harvard Law School, his credentials naturally endeared him to the president, who likes to boast about the military valor and sterling educational credentials of his advisers.
The former Kansas congressman has consistently said he wasn’t interested in the secretary of state job, which will thrust him into the public spotlight and, as the president’s principal spokesman on foreign policy, force him publicly to defend the president’s statements. Months ago, when Trump and his senior advisers began sounding him out about the job, he made clear he had little interest in the role — but also that he would do what the president asked.
The announcement of Tillerson’s departure is the latest in a string of exits among high-level White House aides that have increase the sense of chaos and instability inside the West Wing.
Trump is already looking for a new top economic adviser after National Economic Council director Gary Cohn announced his departure a week ago amid a fierce White House battle over trade policy as well as a communications director, staff secretary and other senior staff. The president’s personal aide, John McEntee, was also ousted Monday due to an unspecified security issue.
And the president suggested Tuesday to reporters that he isn’t done shuffling staff: “I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the cabinet and other things that I want.”