Tillerson’s Ouster Was Hardly A Surprise

While the nature of Rex Tillerson's firing as Secretary of State was shocking in its abruptness, taken in context with the rocky nature of his tenure it was hardly surprising.

As Steven Taylor noted this morning, Rex Tillerson was ousted as Secretary of State by President Trump and will be replaced by former Congressman Mike Pompeo, who currently serves as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a story first reported this morning by The Washington Post:

President Trump has ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and plans to nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him as the nation’s top diplomat, orchestrating a major change to his national security team amid delicate outreach such as possible talks with North Korea, White House officials said Tuesday.

Trump last Friday asked Tillerson to step aside, and the embattled diplomat cut short a trip to Africa on Monday to return to Washington.

Tension between Trump and Tillerson has simmered for many months, but the president and his top diplomat reached a breaking point over the past week, officials said.

The reason for the latest rift was unclear, but Trump and Tillerson have often appeared at odds over policies such as the nuclear deal with Iran and the tone of U.S. diplomacy. A spokesman for Tillerson said the secretary of state “had every intention of staying” in his job and was “unaware of the reason” for his firing.

Tillerson cut short his trip to Africa on Monday to return to Washington. “I felt like, look, I just need to get back,” he told reporters aboard his plane home. The White House, however, had told him the previous Friday that he would be dismissed, according to two administration officials. The news was not conveyed in person by Trump.

At the White House on Tuesday, Trump said the move had been considered for “a long time.”

“We disagreed on things . . . the Iran deal,” Trump told reporters. “So we were not thinking the same. With Mike Pompeo, we have a similar thought process.”

Trump selected Gina Haspel — the deputy director at the CIA — to succeed Pompeo at the CIA. She would become the first woman to run the spy agency.

Both would need to be confirmed by the Senate at a time when the closely divided chamber has stalled on confirming dozens of Trump nominees.

In a statement issued to The Washington Post, Trump praised both Pompeo and Haspel.

“I am proud to nominate the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo, to be our new Secretary of State,” Trump said. “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.”

The president continued: “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.”

Trump also had words of praise for Tillerson: “Finally, 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.”

A spokesman for Tillerson said the secretary of state has not spoken directly with Trump about the move.

“The secretary had every intention of staying because of the critical progress made in national security and other areas,” Steve Goldstein, undersecretary of public diplomacy for the State Department, said in a statement.

“He will miss his colleagues greatly at the Department of State, and the foreign ministers he’s worked with throughout the world,” Goldstein continued. “The secretary did not speak to the president, and is unaware of the reason. He is grateful for the opportunity to serve, and believes strongly that public service is a noble calling.”

Tillerson’s somewhat abrupt dismissal came just hours after the now-former Secretary of State had returned from a week-long trip that took him to several nations in Africa, which has recently become the focus of an increased American military presence in what seems to be the expansion of the so-called “War on Terror” to yet another continent. Tillerson’s plane had apparently touched down at Andrews Air Force Base around 4:00 am EDT this morning, and it was just under four hours later that the Post dropped the story of his ouster and the President posted the news himself on Twitter. Within less than an hour, we learned that Trump had not even bothered talking to Tillerson directly and that Tillerson first learned he had been fired from the breaking news on the morning cable news shows and via the President’s tweet. This isn’t uncommon for Trump, of course. When he fired former F.B.I. Director James Comey, Comey first learned about the news via a breaking news alert on CNN that he saw before being informed of his dismissal via a phone call from a White House official other than the President himself.

While the suddenness of Tillerson’s departure is somewhat shocking,it’s hardly surprising. From the start, it was clear that there was more friction than cooperation between the President and his Administration and the person who is arguably one of the most important members of the Cabinet.

Only months into his tenure, for example, Tillerson was reportedly clashing with White House officials over appointees to key positions in the State Department and complaining quite loudly behind closed doors about the Administration’s slow the pace of filling many of the positions that had been vacated at the end of the Obama Administration. Additionally, Tillerson was seeing his position being undermined by the likes of Jared Kushner who was apparently given the task of putting together the Administration’s position on the Israeli/Palestinian peace process despite the fact that he has absolutely no experience in that area. Tillerson was also among the small number of Cabinet officials to openly criticize the President in the wake of his divisive comments in the wake of the protest in Charlottesville, Virginia that ended with a young woman dead. Over the summer, Tillerson apparently came close to resigning after another clash with the White House and had reportedly called the President a “f**king moron” after a meeting between Trump and his top military and foreign policy advisers at the White House. In October, the President was using his Twitter feed to turn up the heat on North Korea and undermine Tillerson’s work even as he was in China to talk to President Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials. During this same period, Tillerson was among those Trump foreign policy advisers advising against the President’s decision to decertify Iranian compliance with the Iran nuclear deal. All of this led to a point in October when Tillerson made public remarks that made it clear that he was growing frustrated in his position and the difficulties in dealing with the White House. The most recent clash between Tillerson and the White House came just yesterday when British Prime Minister Theresa May blamed Moscow for what appears to have been the murder of a former Russian spy. While the White House was circumspect in its support for May’s claims and didn’t directly condemn Russia, Tillerson made a public comment in which he blasted Russia for the attack on the soil of America’s closest ally.

Thanks in no small part to all of this, the rumors about Tillerson leaving or being pushed out of Foggy Bottom have been in the news for quite some time. Over the summer, rumors were sweeping Washington that Trump was considering firing and replacing him with former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who is currently serving as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. While Haley responded to these rumors by saying that she was not interested in that kind of promotion and would turn the President down if the offer was made. More recently, the rumors about Tillerson’s imminent departure became louder, this time with reports that he would be replaced by Pompeo which is, of course, exactly what happened today.

Taking all of this together, today’s news of Tillerson’s departure from Foggy Bottom, while it was surprising to the extent that it came with no apparent warning to either Tillerson himself or anyone else, was really just a matter of time.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, National Security, Politicians, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Mu says:

    And they fired the Undersecretary who dared to not confirm the official story right with him. It’s going to be yes-men from now on.

  2. teve tory says:

    And now the under secretary of state has been fired for telling everyone that Tillerson wasn’t fired last Friday, that was BS.

    ETA dang Mu beat me by 4 mins

  3. teve tory says:

    If the Republicans had any one of three things: dignity, integrity, or patriotism, they would have already formed a committee of current and retired GOP politicians, to go to the White House and tell Trump that it was time to go.

  4. Kathy says:

    The Democrats should grill Pompeo on how, not whether, he’s going to fill all the relevant vacancies at State, and refuse to confirm him if he won’t.

    I know he’ll be confirmed anyway by the 51-strong rubber stamp, but perhaps the Dems can make some GOP senators reconsider.

  5. Tony W says:

    Tillerson survived calling Trump an F’ing Idiot – but he could not survive calling out the Russians for their anti-democratic activities.

    Trump continues to make his priorities clear.

    All I can imagine is that he must be really ashamed of the bed wetting problem.

  6. CSK says:

    Tillerson will be speaking from the State Dept. at 2 p.m.

  7. gVOR08 says:

    @teve tory:

    If the Republicans had any one of three things: dignity, integrity, or patriotism, they would have already formed a committee of current and retired GOP politicians, to go to the White House and tell Trump that it was time to go.

    I’m reading How Democracies Die.

    The abdication of political responsibility by existing leaders often marks a nation’s first step toward authoritarianism.

    A political scientist named Juan Linz in 1978 published a book with a litmus test for potential authoritarians. Based on that these authors came up with “Four Key Indicators of Authoritarian Behavior”, paraphrasing for brevity: rejection of democratic rules, denying legitimacy of opponents, toleration of violence, and readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents. Statements of intention count.

    The authors also make it clear that the slide to autarchy is frighteningly easy and that to prevent autarchy the existing party ideologically closest to the potential autarch must act to stop him, even at political cost to themselves. Can you see the gutless wonders in the Republican Party doing the right thing.

  8. michael reynolds says:

    Well, gosh, this is a huge surprise: turns out Tillerson didn’t learn he was fired until this morning. IOW, after- well after – he’d supported May’s suspicions that Russians were behind the assassination attempts in London.

    Cause and effect. He dissed Putin, so Trump sent to the Gulag.

  9. CSK says:

    Tillerson found out he was fired pretty much the same time the rest of us did.

    Well, I can’t wait to see Trump’s cabinet picks:

    Attorney General — Judge Jeannine

    Chief of Staff — Sean Hannity

    National Security — Steve Doocy

  10. Mikey says:

    @michael reynolds: And when Tillerson’s undersecretary for public affairs–essentially his spokesman–went public with the truth about the timeline, Trump fired him too.

    So that’s two in one day who were fired for telling the truth.

    In an administration based on lies, telling the truth is a firing offense.

  11. Kathy says:

    So the self-proclaimed “stable genius” cannot keep a stable cabinet…

  12. DrDaveT says:

    Rex Tillerson was ousted as Secretary of State by President Trump and will be replaced by former Congressman Mike Pompeo, who currently serves as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency

    Does Pompeo realize this is a demotion? Check out the relative budgets…