Tillerson Out, Mike Pompeo to State

Rex Tillerson seemed to be a dead man walking for months. Now the former ExxonMobil boss is out as America’s top diplomat.

President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wait for a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Washington on June 30, 2017.  (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wait for a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Washington on June 30, 2017. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump announced on Twitter he was moving to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, marking the biggest Cabinet shake-up yet in an administration already defined by high turnover and internal turmoil.

“Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job!” Trump wrote in his tweet. “Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!”

Tillerson leaves behind a short-lived and mixed legacy at the State Department, where he sometimes ran afoul of the White House and stoked criticism for his handling of the department.

Tillerson made a brief statement to reporters at the State Department Tuesday afternoon, flanked in the background by a grim-faced Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and other aides, in which he pointedly thanked State Department (and Pentagon) personnel but avoided thanking the president.

Tillerson said he would hand over the State Department to Sullivan today and would officially wrap up his tenure by March 31 to ensure a “smooth and ordered transition.”

Sounding at times emotional, Tillerson ticked off a list of accomplishments at State, including the maximum pressure campaign on North Korea. He also highlighted the importance of diplomacy, respect, and honesty on his way out the door.

Tillerson reiterated his concern about Russia in his parting statement, saying: “Much work remains to respond to the troubling behavior and actions on the part of the Russian government.”

Rank and file in the State Department were stunned by the announcement, three State Department officials told Foreign Policy.

The news broke just hours after Tillerson debarked from a plane after a weeklong trip to Africa. He cut his trip short by a day, citing important meetings in Washington he needed to attend, but he gave no indication he was on the cusp of losing his job.

The Washington Post reported Trump asked Tillerson to step down last Friday. But Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein, in a statement emailed to FP, indicated Tillerson was caught off guard by the announcement.

“The Secretary had every intention of remaining because of the tangible progress made on critical national security issues,” he wrote. “The Secretary did not speak to the President this morning and is unaware of the reason, but he is grateful for the opportunity to serve.”

After apparently contradicting the White House, Goldstein was fired just hours later.


At Foggy Bottom


  • The White House sacked Goldstein this morning shortly after he issued the above statement, a senior State Department official confirmed to FP. Goldstein served as No. 4 at the State Department — undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs — for just three months.
  • Hours later, the White House named Heather Nauert, current State Department spokeswoman, to be Goldstein’s replacement in an acting capacity.
  • With Tillerson and Goldstein gone, eight of the nine top posts at the State Department will not be permanently filled. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon last month announced his resignation but pledged to stay on until the administration finds a replacement. Until (and unless) Pompeo is confirmed, only Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan remains.
  • Reports have also emerged that Tillerson’s chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, and deputy chief of staff, Christine Ciccone, are readying resignation letters. The fate of Brian Hook, the State Department’s policy planning director and one of Tillerson’s closest confidants, remains uncertain. A State Department spokesman told FP Hook will proceed with planned meetings in Europe on the Iran nuclear deal this week.
  • One State Department official, who spoke with FP on condition of anonymity: “It doesn’t bode well for the pre-existing feeling of upheaval at the Department.”
  • Another laid the blame of Tillerson’s ouster at the feet of some of his top aides, including Peterlin and Ciccone, who received criticism within the department for shutting career officials out of the foreign-policy making process. “I think the record will show it wasn’t Rex who got himself fired. It was the echelon of inept and obstructionist staff he came with who got him fired.”

On Capitol Hill

  • Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, said in a statement that he spoke with Pompeo by phone on Monday morning. “The committee will consider his nomination as expeditiously as possible,” he said. Corker, one of Tillerson’s closest allies on the Hill, also gave well wishes to the outgoing secretary of state. One congressional aide said the nomination hearing could come as soon as next month.
  • Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), another Republican on the committee, lauded the Pompeo pick. “Mike Pompeo is smart and experienced, and it was a pleasure to work with him when we served together in the House,” he said. “I would also like to thank Rex Tillerson for his distinguished service to our country, and I wish him the very best in his future endeavors,” he added.
  • Meanwhile, top Democrats on the Senate foreign relations committee didn’t mince words with their thoughts on the reshuffle. “President Trump has demonstrated yet again that he is the Commander-in-Chaos,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the committee. “The State Department is in disarray because of President Trump and Secretary Tillerson’s misguided efforts to reform a Department they fundamentally do not understand,” he said.
  • Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the foreign relations panel, tweeted: “Why would President Trump fire his Secretary of State at such a grave moment? He’s about to meet with North Korea, the Russian threat continues to pervade the globe, and key ambassadorships go empty. Chaos at the top may make for good reality TV but it’s dangerous foreign policy.”

On Embassy Row

  • Meanwhile, foreign diplomats reacted to the news with a mixture of befuddlement and resignation. As one South American diplomat told FP: “My personal view as an observer is that this change shows the administration is still in search of a grand strategy.… We wonder if this change can bring about a new perspective. Given the new Secretary’s background, though, it is highly doubtful.”
  • Another European diplomat, by email: “There were rumors about Pompeo heading [State] for some time. So, no surprise in the decision. What surprised was the timing: right after Tillerson went more vocal about Russia’s threat, and on the day when he just arrived from Africa. (Was there an urgent need to announce it today? Why not wait several days?)”
  • Not everyone saw it coming, however. “Yes, I was [surprised],” a European diplomat confessed by phone. “This is a good lesson. We must not underestimate the rumors in this town. Trump is more methodical than we thought. This is exactly what was predicted, maybe, like, six months ago. Then it was sort of put on back-burner. We sort of forgot about it. But it was still there, apparently.”
  • Another European diplomat offered by phone, “At least now we believe we will have in the State Department leadership that will also be speaking for the White House.”

Around Washington

  • National security experts around Washington weren’t surprised by the move but seemed shocked at the way in which it was done.
  • Critics of Tillerson say good riddance: “He was a low-energy Secretary of State that had little presence on the world stage or in Washington, which cratered the relevance of the State Department,” said Max Bergmann, a former State Department official now at the Center for American Progress. “While he may have had generally sane foreign policy views, he was overall ineffective in advancing them. He won’t be missed in Foggy Bottom.”
  • Others say the way in which it was announced (unceremoniously over Twitter, with Tillerson himself potentially caught flat-footed) must have stung. “For a guy who ran a multibillion corporation — you have to imagine the man who rises to be CEO of ExxonMobil has some sense of self importance — this must just be brutal,” said the Brookings Institution’s Tom Hill. He said that despite the closer relationship between Pompeo and Trump, the president’s unusual style will continue. Pompeo will now be out front of Trump’s foreign policy, defending the president’s decisions, even when they come out of the blue via Twitter.
  • “We could end up right back in the same place in a year,” Hill said.


The Cabinet reshuffle comes as Trump sets out to hold talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a high-wire diplomatic gamble. Tillerson, like most in the administration, seemed to be blindsided by Trump’s acceptance of a meeting with the North Korean dictator.

Hours before his ouster, Tillerson raised eyebrows by issuing some of his strongest statements yet on Russia. When the White House stopped short of directly blaming Moscow for the high-profile nerve agent attack on an ex-spy in the United Kingdom, Tillerson pulled no punches. “This is a really egregious act. It appears that it clearly came from Russia,” he said on Monday.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Monday the White House was standing with the United Kingdom as it investigated the attack, but she stopped short of blaming Russia for the attack.  

Tillerson stoked resentment and criticism from some State Department employees for his controversial efforts to reform and pare down the department’s bureaucracy, which some saw as a hollowing out of Foggy Bottom.

Rumors of Tillerson’s ouster first started late last year, when reports that appeared to be targeted leaks from the White House emerged that Trump was souring on his secretary of state, following policy disputes and embarrassing leaks.

The rumors came a month after a bombshell NBC News report revealed Tillerson privately railed against the president and called him a “moron” at a closed-door meeting at the Pentagon. Tillerson himself fanned the flames by refusing to deny the reports.

Tillerson’s departure marks the latest in a flood of turnover in Trump’s inner circle, including the exits of national security advisor Mike Flynn, strategist Steve Bannon, chief of staff Reince Priebus, top economic advisor Gary Cohn, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, and White House communications director Hope Hicks.

If formally nominated and confirmed, Pompeo will be the first former CIA director to become secretary of state.

The appointment raises the prospect of improved relations between the State Department and the U.S. team at the United Nations; current U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who had sometimes been mentioned as a possible replacement for Tillerson, had clashed bitterly with him.

Early last year, Haley and her husband led Pompeo and his wife on a personal tour of the U.N. Security Council. Haley has also worked with the U.S. intelligence agency to declassify evidence linking Iran to the supply of ballistic missiles to Houthi insurgents in Yemen.

Diplomats responded cautiously to the new secretary of state nominee.

“We look forward to working with Mr. Pompeo, who is a highly regarded professional,” said France’s U.N. ambassador, Francois Delattre.

Another U.N.-based diplomat described the former congressman as an unknown quantity. “He hasn’t really worked within the diplomatic channels,” said the diplomat. “For us in the diplomatic service, he is kind of like a blank page.”

This story will be updated throughout the day.

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

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin