Washington (AFP) – Donald Trump Tuesday sacked his top diplomat Rex Tillerson and named current CIA chief Mike Pompeo to succeed him, ending a rocky tenure by the Texas oilman who had frequently been at odds with the mercurial US president.
A senior White House official said Trump wanted to reshuffle his team with a view to launching talks with North Korea, following last week’s spectacular announcement he plans to meet Kim Jong Un.
Trump thanked Tillerson “for his service,” but had scant words of praise for the 65-year-old Texan, who had effectively been sidelined on the world stage and was long rumored to be on the way out.
The outgoing secretary of state, who returned overnight from a trip to Africa, did not even speak to the president before his sacking was announced and was unaware of the reason for his sudden downfall, according to a top aide.
That aide — Steve Goldstein, the undersecretary for public affairs and public diplomacy — was quickly sacked after his comments. No reason was given, but White House and State Department officials said Trump had made the decision.
Before leaving on a trip to California, Trump spoke openly of his divergences with the former Exxon chief — including over the Iran nuclear deal — as he explained the rationale for the latest departure from his chaotic White House.
“We got along actually quite well but we disagreed on things,” Trump told reporters.
“When you look at the Iran deal, I thought it was terrible, he thought it was okay,” Trump said. “So we were not really thinking the same.”
“I wish Rex a lot of good things,” the president added. “I think he’s going to be very happy. I think Rex will be much happier now.”
Announcing Tillerson’s sacking in a tweet earlier Tuesday, Trump lavished praise on Pompeo, a former US army officer and congressman who led the CIA for nearly 14 months, saying he would do a “fantastic job!”
“He will continue our program of restoring America’s standing in the world, strengthening our alliances, confronting our adversaries, and seeking the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Trump added, calling him “the right person for the job at this critical juncture” and urging his swift confirmation.
His enthusiasm was echoed by the US envoy to the United Nations, Nikki Haley — who tweeted her congratulations to her “friend” Pompeo.
Democrats quickly pounced on the news.
“There’s a pattern and practice to dismiss anyone with whom this president has a policy difference, and that appears to be the case with Secretary Tillerson,” senior Senator Dianne Feinstein said.
To succeed Pompeo at the Central Intelligence Agency, Trump nominated Gina Haspel, a controversial career intelligence officer who is the first woman tapped for the post.
Haspel has been reported to have overseen a CIA “black site” in Thailand where Al-Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded after the 9/11 attacks.
Both Pompeo and Haspel require Senate confirmation to assume their new posts. A hearing for Pompeo is expected in April, Senate leaders said.
– ‘Every intention of remaining’ –
Tillerson had a tumultuous tenure at the State Department.
He was repeatedly forced to deny he had fallen out with Trump — vowing to remain in the post despite a sensational report that he once dubbed the president a “moron.”
A respected figure in the oil business, his tenure drew scorn from Trump’s opponents, from former diplomats and from the Washington policy elite.
During his time in the post, he was faced with an extraordinary array of foreign policy challenges — from North Korean nuclear threats, to Russian intervention in Ukraine, Syria and Western elections, to attacks on US diplomats in Cuba.
But his efforts were often overshadowed by Trump’s decidedly un-diplomatic style and his streams of taunting tweets that have stirred international tensions.
Tillerson was thousands of miles away on a tour of African countries when Trump made the snap decision to meet Kim, and suspended his schedule on grounds he was “unwell” before cutting short his trip.
In a cruel twist of fate, one of Trump’s most public clashes with Tillerson came last October when the president tweeted that his top diplomat was “wasting his time” pursuing contacts with North Korea.
Goldstein, in a statement, made clear Tillerson was caught off guard.
“The secretary had every intention of remaining because of the tangible progress made on critical national security issues. He established and enjoyed relationships with his counterparts,” Goldstein said.
“We wish Secretary-Designate Pompeo well,” he added.
Shortly thereafter, Goldstein himself was fired.
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