Rexit: Secretary of State Tillerson Could Soon Get the Boot

Reports suggest Trump is mulling replacing the embattled secretary of state with CIA head Pompeo, and putting Sen. Tom Cotton at CIA.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson leaves for meetings after posing for photos for the press at the State Department on Nov. 29 in Washington. (Saul Loeb/AFPGetty Images)
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson leaves for meetings after posing for photos for the press at the State Department on Nov. 29 in Washington. (Saul Loeb/AFPGetty Images)

President Donald Trump is reportedly mulling plans to oust Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the coming weeks and replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, potentially bringing to a close one of the most tumultuous and shortest-lived tenures for a secretary of state in more than a century.

The move would put two vocal hawks at the helm of U.S. foreign policy and intelligence, while ousting an embattled secretary of state struggling with a fraying relationship with the White House and a growing chorus of criticism over his handling of the department.

The New York Times reported on Thursday that Trump was souring on Tillerson and ready to make a change at Foggy Bottom, following months of rumors about the former oil executive’s imminent ouster. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) appears to be the leading candidate to replace Pompeo at the CIA, the Times said. The Associated Press later confirmed that the White House is considering the move.

“As the President just said, ‘Rex is here,’” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement in response to the reports. “There are no personnel announcements at this time. Secretary Tillerson continues to lead the State Department and the entire cabinet is focused on completing this incredibly successful first year of President Trump’s administration,” she said.

The State Department declined to comment.

Pompeo, who served three full terms in Congress, has developed a rapport with Trump, as he personally delivers a regular intelligence briefing to the president in the Oval Office and has played an influential role on major national security decisions.

With Tillerson out of the picture, Cotton and Pompeo could drive U.S. policy in a more aggressive direction, especially when it comes to Iran. As a lawmaker, Pompeo earlier this year called for congressional action aimed at ultimately toppling the regime in Tehran. In June, Cotton argued for the United States to explicitly set a goal of overturning the government.

“The policy of the United States should be regime change in Iran,” Cotton said in June. “I don’t see how anyone can say America can be safe as long as you have in power a theocratic despotism,” he said, in reference to Tehran.

The Arkansas senator, who served as an Army officer in the Iraq War, has also advocated supporting Iranian dissidents and ethnic and religious minorities. The Obama administration ruled out regime change as a policy goal and limited covert action by the CIA to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program, former intelligence officers said.

In October, Cotton told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations that the United States did not have to choose between capitulation to Tehran or a military occupation, arguing that there were a range of possible military options.

“We always have the option of calibrated strikes like President Trump ordered against Syria earlier this year,” the senator said, referring to a cruise missile attack that pockmarked a Syrian airfield.

Tillerson by contrast, has played a moderating role, advocating for the maintenance of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and pushing for a diplomatic solution. He also also sought to temper the president’s fiery statements and tweets on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, though he has been publicly and repeatedly undercut by Trump himself.

Tillerson’s rocky tenure at the State Department has been marked by an exodus of top diplomats, a controversial drive to shrink and overhaul the department, and a series of foreign-policy stumbles. He tried to mediate a diplomatic crisis in the Persian Gulf but was contradicted by the White House. When he sought a diplomatic solution in North Korea, Trump mocked his efforts. Tillerson was also criticized for the State Department’s standoffish attitude during the autumn showdown between Iraq’s federal government and its Kurdish region, two U.S. allies, which led to armed clashes.  

State Department officials reacted to Thursday’s stories with a mixture of skepticism, shock, and fatigue.

“I think honestly people can’t discern if it’s good or bad right now because we’ve been through a hell of year so far,” a State official told Foreign Policy, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official said State Department officials were “desensitized” to the news because internal turmoil has become the norm in Foggy Bottom lately.

Other officials say they weren’t surprised, as rumors have been swirling for months. One official said murmurs of a change involving Pompeo and Cotton have already spread through the department.

Some State Department officials expected Tillerson to stay through the one-year mark and see through his plan to reform the State Department, an effort he has called his most important legacy. But that effort, shrouded in secrecy and reports of mismanagement, has drawn waves of criticism from top lawmakers and current and former department officials.

Still others believe the leaks to the Times and other outlets are designed by White House aides to force Tillerson to resign. Tillerson is slated to travel to Europe next week for key meetings to shore up tense relations with trans-Atlantic allies, but the drumbeat of reports undercuts his standing both overseas and at home, officials say.

“Forget Europe, how can you show up to work after this?” another senior State Department official said.

Tillerson’s personal relationship with Trump took a big hit after reports emerged he called the president a “fucking moron” in a July meeting at the Pentagon. Rumors have swirled of Tillerson’s ouster in the months since.

“I don’t think he ever recovered from the ‘moron’ thing,” said a fourth State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “If they push him out before a year, that’s a ‘fuck you,’” the official said.

If Tillerson departs soon, he will have chalked up the shortest tenure of any secretary of state that wasn’t interrupted by a change in administration in almost 120 years.

Another potential concern with the proposed shuffle is the further militarization of senior ranks of the U.S. government. Both Cotton and Pompeo served in the military, while Trump’s entire national security team is filled with current or former military officials. That could add to growing concern that Trump is militarizing American foreign policy at the expense of traditional diplomacy.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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