In the latest major staffing change to rock the White House, President Trump is replacing embattled Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA director Mike Pompeo.
On Tuesday morning, a spokesman for the State Department issued an unusual statement, saying Tillerson “did not speak to the president and is unaware of the reason” he was being replaced.
Steve Goldstein, the undersecretary for public diplomacy, told CNN Global Affairs correspondent Elise Labott that Tillerson learned he was being replaced when he read a tweet sent by Trump Tuesday morning.
From @eliselabottcnn: "Rex Tillerson found out that he was fired from the tweet from President Trump on Tuesday, according to Steve Goldstein, Undersecretary for public diplomacy"
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) March 13, 2018
After revealing Tillerson found out about his dismissal from Trump’s tweet, the White House also fired Goldstein for contradicting the official account of the secretary of state’s ouster. Goldstein confirmed he’d been fired to AFP diplomatic correspondent Dave Clark, adding, “I look forward to getting some rest.”
Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein confirms he was sacked: "This has been the honor of my lifetime … I look forward to getting some rest."
— Dave Clark (@DaveClark_AFP) March 13, 2018
During a press conference at the State Department Tuesday afternoon, Tillerson said he received a call around noon from the president informing him he was being terminated, more than three hours after Trump’s initial tweet.
In a roughly 10-minute statement, a somewhat shaken Tillerson announced that he was delegating his responsibilities at the end of the workday to Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, and that his tenure as secretary of state would officially end at midnight on March 31. Tillerson called for an orderly transition to nominee Pompeo and thanked all State Department employees, Americans and the military, but he notably did not thank Trump or praise his leadership.
“What is most important is to ensure an orderly and smooth transition during a time that the country continues to face significant policy and national security challenges,” Tillerson said.
Discord between Tillerson and Trump has been festering for months, since NBC News reported in October that Tillerson had called Trump a “moron” during a Pentagon meeting last summer.
“Trump was enraged after it leaked that he had called him a moron, and his frustration with him never subsided,” CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins wrote on Twitter. “Their differences were irreconcilable.”
Tillerson is out. White House staff have said for months that this was imminent. Trump was enraged after it leaked that he had called him a moron, and his frustration with him never subsided. Their differences were irreconcilable. https://t.co/3Se6KntYeg
— Kaitlan Collins (@kaitlancollins) March 13, 2018
Despite months of rumors, Tillerson’s sudden departure was a surprise to reporters traveling with the secretary of state home from a recent trip to Africa.
“We got off the plane with Tillerson less than four hours ago,” wrote Josh Lederman, who covers the State Department for the Associated Press. “There was zero indication on flight home that this was imminent.”
We got off the plane with Tillerson less than four hours ago. There was zero indication on flight home that this was imminent.
— Josh Lederman (@joshledermanAP) March 13, 2018
On the flight back to Washington from Nigeria Monday night, Tillerson spoke to reporters about Russia’s alleged involvement in the poisoning of an ex-spy in Britain, calling it “a really egregious act” that appears to have “clearly” come from Russia.
“I’ve become extremely concerned about Russia,” Tillerson told reporters. “We spent most of last year investing a lot into attempts to work together, to solve problems, to address differences. And quite frankly, after a year, we didn’t get very far. Instead what we’ve seen is a pivot on their part to be more aggressive.”
Tillerson’s remarks about Russia echoed comments made by British Prime Minister Theresa May, who said it was “highly likely” Russia was behind the poisoning. The fact that Tillerson took a harsher stance against Russia than the White House, just hours before his dismissal, wasn’t lost on pundits Tuesday morning.
“Tillerson getting fired the day after he publicly chastised Putin is pretty wild,” wrote former Obama official and Pod Save America co-host Dan Pfeiffer.
Tillerson getting fired the day after he publicly chastised Putin is pretty wild https://t.co/NW1pqjFAjJ
— Dan Pfeiffer (@danpfeiffer) March 13, 2018
Just about 100 days ago, Trump himself denied that Tillerson was on his way out, calling reports of the secretary of state’s departure “fake news.”
The media has been speculating that I fired Rex Tillerson or that he would be leaving soon – FAKE NEWS! He’s not leaving and while we disagree on certain subjects, (I call the final shots) we work well together and America is highly respected again!https://t.co/FrqiPLFJ1E
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 1, 2017
Here is a round-up of some initial reaction to Tillerson’s ouster from former politicians, political pundits and reporters:
David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush:
"Oh, Rex, one more thing on your way out the door. NEVER blame Putin. Goodbye." https://t.co/YD94VsCiNV
— David Frum (@davidfrum) March 13, 2018
Jill Dougherty, former CNN Moscow bureau chief:
— Jill Dougherty (@jillrussia) March 13, 2018
Rich Lowry, National Review editor:
Funny how things work out. Tillerson is out after a year, in humiliating fashion; Romney is on his way to being a senator for life
— Rich Lowry (@RichLowry) March 13, 2018
Hadas Gold, CNN reporter:
I’m just imagining how this much exec level turnover would be covered if the administration was say, a major company like GE, WalMart or Apple.
— Hadas Gold (@Hadas_Gold) March 13, 2018
Steve Bannon, former White House Chief Strategist (via Axios’ Jonathan Swan):
Unprompted text message I just received from Steve Bannon (punctuation intact): “Come on dude!!!…end of the globalists !!!”
— Jonathan Swan (@jonathanvswan) March 13, 2018
Tommy Vietor, former National Security Council spokesman:
Rex Tillerson was probably the worst Secretary of State in modern history. He gutted and demoralized the department and delivered nothing for this country. I fear what comes next but am glad he's finally gone.
— Tommy Vietor (@TVietor08) March 13, 2018
Mark Knoller, CBS News White House correspondent:
So unusual for a Secretary of State to be summarily ousted and replaced. It's a shakeup at the highest level of the US Government's national security apparatus.
— Mark Knoller (@markknoller) March 13, 2018
Josh Marshall, editor and publisher of Talking Points Memo:
So Tillerson stepped down as the CEO of one of the largest corporations in the world to cap his career spending one year being jerked around by a louche New York City shyster. Everybody gets hurt. They almost all deserve it.
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) March 13, 2018
Charles Schwab, founder of The Charles Schwab Corporation:
— FOX Business (@FoxBusiness) March 13, 2018