The White House is readying a plan to oust Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and install loyalists to President Trump in two top national security positions, laying the groundwork for another seismic personnel change in an already turbulent presidency, two administration officials confirmed Thursday.
The emerging strategy to stabilize the floundering State Department, which is under active consideration by the president and might change further, could have CIA Director Mike Pompeo replacing Tillerson and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) being elevated to succeed Pompeo.
The plan, first reported by the New York Times, was confirmed by the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House has not publicly announced any moves.
Pompeo has become one of the most personally loyal and politically savvy members of Trump’s national security team, while Cotton is one of Trump’s most steadfast congressional defenders and a confidant to national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other top officials.
For Tillerson, being forced out of the administration would represent a dramatic fall for the former ExxonMobil chief executive, who has struggled to transition from overseeing one of the world’s most powerful — and most secretive — corporations to managing a complex bureaucracy and serving a mercurial boss.
Tillerson’s anticipated departure could come as part of an exodus of administration officials at the one-year mark of Trump’s presidency. There has long been speculation that a number of senior staffers who have had difficulties with Trump, including National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, could bolt in the new year.
The plan to remove Tillerson, which is being directed by White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, is expected to be set in motion over the next few weeks and has broad support within Trump’s inner circle, the officials said.
Though Trump’s relationship with Tillerson has soured in recent months, with the president privately bristling at and publicly undermining his secretary of state, it was unclear whether Trump had signed off on the plan. The president has been known to change his mind before finalizing decisions with public announcements.
Asked during a meeting Thursday morning with the crown prince of Bahrain, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, whether he wants Tillerson to remain as secretary of state, Trump told reporters simply: “He’s here. Rex is here.”
On Friday, during a photo opportunity with the visiting Libyan prime minister, Tillerson was dismissive of the suggestions that the White House is planning a change.
“It’s laughable, he said twice when asked about the reports. He made no other remarks to reporters, and left the room.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, asked Thursday what he made of the reports on Tillerson, dismissed them. “I make nothing of it,” he told reporters. “There’s nothing to it.”
Rumblings of Tillerson’s possible ouster add yet another element of uncertainty for lawmakers on Capitol Hill and U.S. allies around the world already anxious about Trump’s combativeness and off-the-cuff comments and tweets, especially coming amid tumult at home and abroad.
Tensions between the United States and North Korea are escalating. Trump this week has also been feuding with British Prime Minister Theresa May over his Wednesday tweets sharing inflammatory and misleading anti-Islam videos from Britain First, a far-right group known for targeting Muslims.
In Washington, the White House and Republican lawmakers are scrambling to avert a government shutdown and pass their sweeping tax-cut bill, which would be the president’s first major legislative achievement.
Throughout the fall, Tillerson’s departure has been widely expected, given his rocky relationship with the president — he reportedly called Trump a “moron” after a meeting at the Pentagon — and his shrinking number of boosters inside the administration. Trump has grown frustrated at negative news coverage of Tillerson and has taken to asking others about him, something he often does before cutting ties, according to one senior administration official and one adviser.
But while there is almost universal agreement within the West Wing that Tillerson’s days are numbered, the timing and circumstances of his exit — as well as his replacement — have not yet been finalized, officials said.
The president has spoken with other candidates about the CIA job, including Robert S. Harward, a retired vice admiral and Navy SEAL who met with Trump recently about the intelligence post, two people with knowledge of the conversation said. Harward had previously been offered — and declined — the national security adviser job after Michael T. Flynn was forced out of the administration early this year after lying to the vice president about his contacts with Russia.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not dispute reports about the plan to replace Tillerson, saying he is working to “close out what has been a successful year” and “there are no personnel announcements at this time.”
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.
One senior administration official said Tillerson’s departure could come in a couple of weeks or in a couple of months but is being actively discussed by Trump and Kelly. “It’s just a matter of ripping the Band-Aid off,” the official said.
Pointing to Trump’s management style, one informal adviser said the president is loath to fire aides outright and instead prefers to publicly humiliate them, hoping they decide to quit on their own. Later, he often tries to repair the relationship — a pattern that played out with several senior advisers, including former chief of staff Reince Priebus and former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.
At the State Department, spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Kelly called Tillerson’s office Thursday morning to say reports about replacing him were “not true.” She said that Tillerson was going about his job as usual, including two visits to the White House on Thursday.
“Secretary Tillerson enjoys this job. He has a lot of work to do,” Nauert said. “He does serve at the pleasure of the president.”
Asked about her boss’s relationship with Trump, Nauert said: “They 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. As for Cotton, spokeswoman Caroline Rabbitt Tabler said, “Senator Cotton’s focus is on serving Arkansans in the Senate.”
Chatter about Tillerson’s potential ouster reached a fever pitch in October, after NBC News first 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 in part to protect his reputation, rumors of his impending departure have gained a nickname: Rexit.
Tillerson, 65, has alienated onetime allies at the White House and his underlings at the State Department with what many call a highhanded and tone-deaf manner.
Trump loyalists inside the administration have largely turned on Tillerson, believing he harbored disdain for the president — as evidenced by his rolling of eyes and sighing in meetings with Trump.
Vice President Pence and his staff had also come to believe that Tillerson was ineffective as the chief diplomat and had further undermined his standing by being disrespectful to Trump.
Pence was particularly upset when Tillerson’s spokesman, R.C. Hammond, told NBC that the vice president raised questions about the role of U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley in the administration — a claim Hammond later recanted.
Tillerson’s likely successor for a time appeared to be Haley, a Republican former governor from South Carolina who has clashed with Tillerson. Over the past several weeks, however, Haley and White House officials had signaled that she was not likely to be chosen, in part because she is seen as not yet seasoned enough. Haley insisted last month that she does not want the job and would reject it if offered.
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. “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.”
Tillerson has stressed the importance of attempting dialogue and diplomacy with North Korea, even as Trump undercut him by saying that the time for talk is over and that North Korea’s leadership understands only 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,” he said of the nonmilitary pressure campaign.
Yet just hours later, Trump again belittled North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “Little Rocket Man” and a “sick puppy.”
Tillerson’s main project, a downsizing and streamlining of the State Department bureaucracy, has drawn widespread criticism on Capitol Hill, from leading congressional Republicans and from Democrats. 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.
Tillerson had never worked in government and was largely unfamiliar with Washington when he accepted the job offer from then-President-elect Trump late last year. He had spent his entire professional career at ExxonMobil, where 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.
Pompeo has emerged in recent weeks as the top contender to succeed Tillerson at Foggy Bottom. He 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 and Harvard Law School, Pompeo, 53, 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.
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.” He added: “I just don’t know him. That’s not dismissive. I just don’t have any frame of reference.”
Karoun Demirjian, Anne Gearan, Dan Lamothe, Carol Morello, Sean Sullivan and Greg Miller contributed to this report.