What to Know
- The president said he made the decision to oust Tillerson "by myself"
- "I look forward to guiding the world’s finest diplomatic corps in formulating and executing the President’s foreign policy," Pompeo said
- Tillerson's ouster comes after Gary Cohn and Hope Hicks announced they would be leaving the administration
President Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday, bringing Tillerson's rocky tenure to an abrupt end after months of disagreements. Trump tapped CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson and is elevating Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel to become the first woman to lead the spy agency.
Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, was not consulted about the president's decision, according to an undersecretary of state. His relationship with Trump had soured over a period of months, and he learned he had been fired from a tweet, senior State Department officials told NBC News.
"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! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!" Trump said in the tweet announcing the decision.
U.S. & World
Tillerson told reporters he spoke to Trump while the president was aboard Air Force One after noon, hours after Trump's announcement. He said he would delegate the responsibilities of his office to Undersecretary of State John Sullivan at the end of the day Tuesday and would complete his commission as secretary at the end of the month, after dealing with some administrative issues. He encouraged department officials to stay on to help transition to Pompeo, who will need to be confirmed by the Senate, as will Haspel.
In his remarks, Tillerson reflected on his achievements and ended without taking any questions, saying, "I'll now return to private life as a private citizen. As a proud American, I'm proud of the opportunity I've had to serve my country."
It's the latest upheaval in the Trump administration, following the resignation of Gary Cohn as Trump's top economic adviser and Hope Hicks as communications director. A senior White House official told NBC News that Trump removed Tillerson now because he wanted to have a new team in place ahead of talks with North Korea and amid trade negotiations.
The Washington Post first reported the news of his ouster.
Trump told reporters Tuesday morning, before boarding Air Force One for San Diego, that he and Tillerson "have been talking about this for a long time." He added that he made the decision on his own.
He said that he and Tillerson had had a number of disagreements, among them whether to end the Iran deal as Trump wants to do. He and Pompeo reportedly have a much closer relationship and, Trump said, "have a very similar thought process" about the Iran agreement.
"I look forward to guiding the world’s finest diplomatic corps in formulating and executing the President’s foreign policy," Pompeo said in a release from the White House that also included statements from Trump and Haspel.
Trump thanked Tillerson, saying "a great deal has been accomplished over the last fourteen months." The release did not include a statement from Tillerson, who had been returning from a trip to Africa.
Haspel, a longtime employee at the CIA, was previously appointed by Trump as deputy director. She once ran a secret prison in Thailand where waterboarding took place.
“After 30 years as an officer of the Central Intelligence Agency, it has been my honor to serve as its deputy director alongside Mike Pompeo for the past year,” she said in a statement. “I am grateful to President Trump for the opportunity, and humbled by his confidence in me, to be nominated to be the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency.”
Trump told reporters Tuesday that he and Tillerson got along well, despite their disagreements, but that he thought Tillerson would be happier now that he had been let go. Trump added that he has had "very good chemistry" with Pompeo since the beginning of the administration.
In November, when White House officials formulated a plan to replace Tillerson with Pompeo, The Associated Press reported that Pompeo visited the White House frequently to give Trump his daily intelligence briefing, something more junior CIA officials have done in past administrations, and would stay for other meetings.
"I'm really at a point where we're getting very close to having the Cabinet, and other things, that I want," Trump said.
Tillerson was sometimes left out of the loop on White House decisions, and his statements did not always align with the president's. Trump decided to negotiate with North Korea by himself, he said Tuesday. Hours before Tillerson was fired, he said that the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy and his daughter in Britain "came from Russia," establishing a link before the White House did. (Trump later told reporters that it appeared that Russia was behind the attack and that the U.S. would concur with whatever Britain finds.)
Tillerson was told by chief of staff John Kelly Friday that Trump intended to ask him to "step aside," but didn't give an exact date or time, two sources familiar with the situation told NBC News.
Shortly after that, Tillerson's office said the secretary of state was canceling events for the day because he wasn't feeling well.
Tillerson "had every intention of staying because of the critical progress made in national security," Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein said in a statement released shortly after Tillerson was fired Tuesday. "The Secretary did not speak to the President and is unaware of the reason, but he is grateful for the opportunity to serve, and still believes strongly that public service is a noble calling."
Goldstein was fired later Tuesday, a senior State Department official told NBC News.
Tillerson's time in office featured sometimes public clashes with the White House. NBC News reported in October that Tillerson called Trump a "moron" after a meeting at the Pentagon on July 20. Tillerson afterward deflected questions about the insult at a press conference, saying, "I'm not going to deal with petty stuff like that."
His refusal to deny the charge was said to have infuriated Trump. Tillerson's spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, later said Tillerson had not made the comment.
Tillerson also had threatened to resign in late July about the time Trump made a politicized speech to the Boy Scouts of America, an organization that Tillerson once headed. He was talked into remaining by other administration officials, according to NBC. Pence counseled Tillerson on how he could ease tensions with Trump, NBC News reported.
"The vice president has never had to persuade me to remain as secretary of state because I have never considered leaving this post," he said at the press conference.
But despite Tillerson’s effort to quash the October report, it continued to vie for headlines with Trump’s visit to Las Vegas to pay respects after a gunman killed 58 in the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. During the visit, Trump maintained he had "total confidence" in Tillerson, dismissing NBC News report as "fake news."
Tillerson was a surprise choice as secretary of state because of his lack of experience as a diplomat, though he had traveled widely and had negotiated gas and oil agreements in troubled parts of the world.
He was immediately criticized for a close relationship with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who awarded him Russia’s Order of Friendship in 2013, and for his public skepticism of sanctions against Russia, which thwarted some of Exxon Mobil’s biggest projects in Russia.
Tillerson, who had never served in government before accepting the job of secretary of state at his wife’s urging, had a precarious position in the Trump administration. He expressed more traditional Republican views on many foreign policy topics than did Trump, sometimes earning the president's mockery. Trump publicly undermined him over North Korea in October, calling him out on Twitter over his attempts to open a line of communication on nuclear tensions.
"I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time to negotiate with Little Rocket Man," Trump tweeted, referring to North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un. "Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!"
Trump similarly undercut Tillerson earlier in the summer over a regional crisis involving Qatar. Trump accused Qatar of being a “high level” sponsor of terrorism as the State Department was trying to ease a blockade of the Gulf state.
Tillerson's diminished role in the Trump administration resulted in fears that the State Department was adrift, NBC News reported in September. During the United Nations General Assembly that month, Vice President Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, the U.N. ambassador, had to step in at meetings Tillerson either ignored or refused to attend. His department was hobbled by budget cuts and unfilled staff positions, both of which he defended as part of an effort to make it more efficient.
And in August, Tillerson distanced himself from Trump's handling of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, saying the president "speaks for himself."
Trump was said to be "livid" about Tillerson's comment, The New York Times' Maggie Haberman tweeted.
While in office, Tillerson navigated the imposition of sanctions on North Korea by the United Nations Security Council for testing intercontinental ballistic missiles. North Korea continued to fire missiles.
In an article in Foreign Policy magazine, defense policy expert Max Boot called Tillerson "quite possibly the most ineffectual secretary of state since America's rise to global prominence in 1898."