The White House has readied a plan to oust embattled Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who has become one of the most personally loyal and politically savvy members of President Trump's national security team, two administration officials confirmed Thursday.
The plan, hatched by White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, is expected to be set in motion over the next few weeks, and it has broad support within Trump's inner circle, the officials said. But it was unclear whether Trump had signed off on the plan yet; the president has been known to change his mind about personnel and other matters before finalizing decisions with public announcements.
Under the plan, Pompeo would probably be replaced at the CIA by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), one of Trump's most steadfast defenders and a confidant to some leading members of the foreign policy team, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House has not publicly announced the moves.
The New York Times was the first to report Kelly's plan.
Asked during a Thursday morning meeting with the crown prince of Bahrain, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, whether he wants Tillerson to remain as secretary of state, Trump told reporters: “He's here. Rex is here.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not dispute the reporting of the plan to replace Tillerson, but she noted that Tillerson remains in his job and is working to “close out what has been a successful year.”
Asked at her afternoon news briefing whether Trump has confidence in Tillerson, Sanders would not answer explicitly. “When the president loses confidence in someone, they will no longer serve in the capacity that they’re in,” she said. In an earlier statement, Sanders told reporters: “There are no personnel announcements at this time.”
As for how Tillerson can serve effectively as the nation's top diplomat amid doubts about his longevity, Sanders told reporters, “The secretary of state’s a pretty tough guy, and I think he’ll be just fine carrying his job out.”
At the State Department, meanwhile, spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tillerson is going about his job as usual, including two visits to the White House on Thursday. She said Kelly called Tillerson's office on Thursday morning to say reports about the White House replacing him were “not true.”
“Secretary Tillerson enjoys this job. He has a lot of work to do,” Nauert said. She added, “He does serve at the pleasure of the president.” Asked about her boss's relationship with Trump, Nauert said: “The president respects Secretary Tillerson. The have had, certainly, a cordial relationship. Where that stands today, I cannot speak to that.”
A spokesperson for Pompeo at the CIA declined to comment. And as for Cotton, the senator's spokesman, Caroline Rabbitt Tabler, said, “Senator Cotton's focus is on serving Arkansans in the Senate.”
Throughout this autumn, Tillerson's departure has been widely expected, given his rocky relationship with the president, and Pompeo has been seen as a top contender to succeed Tillerson at Foggy Bottom.
Chatter about Tillerson's potential ouster reached a fever pitch in October, after NBC News reported that Tillerson had called Trump a “moron.” Though Tillerson had told friends he wanted to make it as secretary of state for a full year and has insisted publicly that he had no plans to quit, rumors of his impending departure gained a nickname — Rexit.
The secretary of state has alienated both onetime allies at the White House and his underlings at the State Department with what many call a highhanded and tone-deaf manner. Tillerson’s main project, a downsizing and streamlining of the State Department bureaucracy, is still a work in progress, but it has drawn widespread criticism on Capitol Hill, from leading congressional Republicans as well as Democrats.
Tillerson's closest ally in Washington may be Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who spoke with Tillerson on Thursday and later dismissed reports about the secretary's departure. Corker suggested that Tillerson's rivals inside the administration were “seeking to undermine his presence.”
“I don't think Secretary Tillerson's getting ready to be ousted,” Corker told reporters, noting that Tillerson talked with Trump on Thursday morning on a diplomatic call with another world leader. “It's been evident to me that, for some time, somebody has been seeking to undermine his presence. I don't know who that is.”
Corker — who was considered for the secretary of state job a year ago but whose relationship with Trump has been badly strained in recent months — said of Tillerson's possible replacement, “I could barely pick Pompeo out of a lineup.”
Corker added: “I just don't know him. That's not dismissive. I just don't have any frame of reference.”
Pompeo, 53, has developed a close rapport with Trump through the president's regular intelligence briefings, which Pompeo often delivers personally in the Oval Office. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Harvard Law School, Pompeo served in Congress for six years as a Republican representing a Kansas district. He was first elected in 2010 as part of the tea party wave.
Tillerson, 65, had never worked in government and was largely unfamiliar with Washington when he accepted a surprise job offer from then President-elect Trump late last year. He had spent his entire professional career at ExxonMobil, where as chief executive officer he built a reputation as a shrewd dealmaker, with contacts across the Middle East and in Moscow. He famously accepted an honorary friendship medal directly from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
As secretary of state, Tillerson has been frustrated by the slow pace and inefficiency of government, as well as what he has complained to friends is a culture of backstabbing and self-aggrandizement.
At one point, Tillerson's likely successor appeared to be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, a Republican and former governor from South Carolina, who has clashed with Tillerson.
Over the past several weeks, however, both Haley and White House officials signaled that she would not likely be chosen to succeed Tillerson, in part because she is seen as not yet seasoned enough for the top diplomatic post. Haley insisted last month that she does not want the job and would reject it if it were offered.
Tillerson accompanied Trump on part of his Asian trip earlier this month, and the pair gave no obvious sign of estrangement. Tillerson has kept up a steady schedule of appearances, including a speech Tuesday at the Woodrow Wilson Center in which he said the United States and European allies recognize the “active threat of a recently resurgent Russia.”
Tillerson has stressed the importance of attempting dialogue and diplomacy with North Korea, even as Trump undercut him by saying the time for talk is over and that North Korea’s leadership only understands the threat of force. On Wednesday morning, Tillerson told reporters that a “long list” of additional sanctions could still be applied to attempt to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
“As a diplomat, we keep working on it every day,” Tillerson said of the nonmilitary pressure campaign.
On Wednesday afternoon, Trump again belittled North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “Little rocket man” and a “sick puppy.”
Cotton, meanwhile, has emerged as perhaps the senator most closely aligned with the White House on national security issues.
Older and more senior Republican colleagues, including national security lions Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Corker, have been frequent critics of Trump policies and priorities.
Cotton was the central congressional figure in the White House plan, unveiled last month, to back away from the Iran nuclear deal and throw the question of U.S. participation in the international agreement to Congress.
Should Cotton be nominated and confirmed as CIA director, he would leave a Senate seat vacant in a reliably Republican state. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is said to prefer for Cotton to remain in the Senate but would not try to stand in his way should the Arkansan want the CIA post, according to one McConnell ally who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
Republican operatives began considering who would make strong potential replacements for Cotton, should the plan come to fruition. Names being mentioned included Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, U.S. Reps. Steve Womack and French Hill, and state Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.
Josh Dawsey, Karoun Demirjian, Sean Sullivan and Greg Miller contributed to this report.