Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Friday brushed off reports that the White House wants him out, calling the idea “laughable” as he carried on with his a diplomatic schedule amid a swirl of speculation about his future.
“It’s laughable. It’s laughable,” Tillerson told reporters when asked about comments by senior U.S. officials a day earlier, who said President Donald Trump is considering pushing out his top diplomat. The officials said the president’s top pick for replacing Tillerson is CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
Tillerson’s brief retort came as he met with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj at the State Department.
Tillerson was scheduled to join Trump’s meeting with al-Sarraj at the White House later Friday, and then have lunch with the president and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Mattis is a Tillerson ally within Trump’s often fractious Cabinet who declared Thursday there was “nothing to” the reports of Tillerson’s imminent demise.
Alongside al-Sarraj, Tillerson smiled and tried to appear unconcerned by the rumors about him. He is scheduled to begin an official trip to Europe next week.
The White House plan, which Trump has not yet signed off on, would force a major realignment early in his term. It would also create a vacancy atop the CIA that officials said could be filled by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas.
Such an overhaul could produce a significant shift in both the tone and direction of the president’s foreign policy, removing it from the understated former oil man whose style has never fit well with Trump’s.
It is exceedingly rare for a secretary of state, America’s face on the global stage, to be fired or to serve for a year or less. Nor is it common for presidents to have such a significant Cabinet revamp so soon after taking office. Too much churn could fuel the perception of chaos in the Trump White House — perhaps one reason he has yet to pull the trigger.
Word of Tillerson’s likely ouster, first reported by the New York Times, loomed awkwardly over an Oval Office meeting on Thursday between Trump and the visiting Bahraini crown prince. Asked by a reporter whether he wanted Tillerson to stay on the job, Trump was coy, merely pointing out that Tillerson was in fact in the building.
“He’s here. Rex is here,” the president said.
Timing for any move is uncertain.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders didn’t deny it. She did suggest that no action was imminent, saying the president and Tillerson planned to “work together to close out what we’ve seen to be an incredible year.”
Friction between the president and the nation’s top diplomat has grown increasingly public through the year.
After a report last month that Tillerson had called the president a “moron,” Tillerson appeared before cameras at the State Department to pledge fealty to his boss. Soon after, Trump publicly challenged his secretary to an IQ match.
For Tillerson, who left his job as Exxon Mobil’s CEO, a premature departure from the Cabinet has seemed increasingly inevitable.
When Tillerson was tapped for the job late last year, many Trump critics expressed quiet relief that he’d picked a sober “adult” who could form a counterweight to the president’s brasher, impulsive approach, especially on critical matters of war and peace.
Yet divisions on key foreign policy issues emerged quickly, and Trump has repeatedly undermined Tillerson by voicing positions at odds with those the State Department was pushing.
When Tillerson in June called on Arab nations to ease their blockade on Qatar, Trump emerged in the Rose Garden hours later to lambaste Qatar for funding terrorism. Trump also deemed diplomacy with North Korea a waste of time, when Tillerson was pursuing just that. Tillerson’s advice to Trump to stay in the Paris climate deal and certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal was similarly overruled.
Pompeo, in contrast, has formed a tight relationship with Trump that’s led to a role much broader than many past CIA chiefs. A former businessman and conservative Republican congressman from Kansas, Pompeo is at the White House nearly every day to deliver the daily intelligence briefing, a task often delegated to less senior officials. He sometimes stays longer to accompany Trump to other meetings. He shares the president’s hardline stance against Iran.
Several administration officials said that Pompeo has said previously he’s open to the job.
Tillerson’s top priority as secretary has been his sweeping overhaul of the State Department, a “redesign” that has been lambasted by lawmakers from both parties — and one which the State Department concedes has hurt morale among diplomats. Still, Tillerson aides say he expects to remain in his role to see the overhaul through.
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