Since well before the White House plan to replace Secretary of State Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo became public Thursday, Pompeo had been informally preparing to take over in Foggy Bottom, reaching out to potential candidates for positions and collecting ideas.
“Pompeo is quietly looking at staff and figuring out how the department could be reorganized to be effective again,” a White House official told me. A CIA spokesman declined to comment.
Pompeo has been calling around to friends and top Republican foreign policy hands and asking them to help him get ready to be America’s top diplomat, if he is ultimately chosen, two GOP foreign policy sources who are familiar with the calls said.
The Trump administration denied Thursday that the White House has drawn up plans to replace Tillerson with Pompeo and then appoint Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to be CIA director, as first reported by the New York Times. But White House officials confirmed to me that such a plan does exist, drawn up by Chief of Staff John F. Kelly. It is still unclear if President Trump has personally approved the plan, officials said, and the timing is also uncertain.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Kelly called Tillerson’s chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, Thursday morning to dispute the reports. Tillerson is going about his normal business, she said, and was not rattled.
“The White House statement confirmed there will be no personnel changes,” she said. “Secretary Tillerson enjoys this job, he has a lot of work to do.”
Tillerson and Trump met twice Thursday. In a pool meeting with reporters, Trump answered questions about Tillerson simply by saying, “He’s here. Rex is here.”
Several State Department officials said Thursday they were happy that Tillerson was leaving and hopeful that Pompeo, if selected, would give them a fresh start with the Trump administration. Morale is low in Foggy Bottom amid budget and staffing cuts, hiring freezes, a departure of top talent and scores of vacant top-level positions.
Tillerson’s support on Capitol Hill has also deteriorated in recent weeks as lawmakers in both parties openly criticized his ongoing reorganization initiative. The main State Department official in charge of that effort, Maliz Beams, quit her job earlier this week.
Tillerson has consistently denied reports he is considering leaving or anticipating being pushed out. This week he pushed back against reports the diplomatic core is in trouble.
Last month, he denied being aware of the low morale and overall discontent with his leadership at the State Department. “If it’s as bad as it seems to be described, I’m not seeing it, I’m not getting it,” he said.
If Pompeo does become secretary of state, his first task should be to repair the Trump administration’s relationship with the thousands of State Department employees who are ready to follow him, if he is ready to lead them.