Donald Trump threw US diplomacy into fresh turmoil on Tuesday by firing his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson – said to have discovered his fate via Twitter – and promoting two officials condemned by human rights groups for endorsing or overseeing torture.
A visibly shaken and demoralised Tillerson spoke briefly at the state department, without taking reporters’ questions. He did not criticise Trump’s decision but nor did he include the president in a list of thank yous.
Tillerson said he received a call “a little after noon time” from Trump and chief of staff John Kelly “to ensure we have clarity as to the days ahead”. He added: “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.”
Effective at the end of the day, all duties would be delegated to deputy secretary John Sullivan. Tillerson’s time at state will formally end at midnight on 31 March.
Reflecting on his tenure, Tillerson claimed “we exceeded the expectations of almost everyone” regarding North Korea. He acknowledged that much works remains to be done on the relationship with China. In what some interpreted as a parting shot at Trump, he singled out the “troubling behaviour and actions” of Russia.
“Russia must assess carefully as to how its actions are in the best interest of the Russian people and of the world more broadly,” Tillerson said. “Continuing on their current trajectory is likely to lead to greater isolation on their part, a situation which is not in anyone’s interest.”
Trump stunned Washington again by announcing in a morning tweet that Tillerson would be replaced by CIA director Mike Pompeo, a hardliner. Gina Haspel, Pompeo’s deputy, would be nominated as the CIA’s first female director.
Pompeo has been criticised for claiming waterboarding is not torture and opposing the closure of Guantánamo Bay. Haspel has come under scrutiny for her role in CIA torture under George W Bush and the destruction of evidence.
Even as the reverberations continued in Washington and beyond, yet more drama bubbled up in the administration before Tuesday was out. The veterans affairs secretary, David Shulkin, is reported to be hanging on to his job by a thread after ethics violations concerning a trip to Europe with his wife and new allegations that he had a member of his security detail go shopping with him at a branch of Home Depot and then cart the purchases into his house.
Trump is considering replacing Shulkin with the energy secretary, Rick Perry, according to the New York Times. Meanwhile, the interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, was questioned by a congressional committee on Tuesday about a habit of using charter flights on government business. This follows a recent scandal over the housing secretary, Ben Carson, overspending on office refurbishments and longstanding criticism of the EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, regularly flying first class at taxpayers’ expense.
But in a cabinet seemingly in constant turmoil, as America’s top diplomat, Tillerson, 65, had the thankless task of playing second fiddle to Trump. His departure had long been predicted after a series of clashes but it came at a critical juncture, as the president threatens a global trade war and prepares to meet the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un. But the manner of his termination was abrupt even by the standards of the current White House.
Thursday: no talks with North Korea
“We’re a long way from negotiations. We just need to be very clear-eyed and realistic about it. I don’t know yet, until we are able to meet ourselves face to face with representatives of North Korea, whether the conditions are right to even begin thinking about negotiations.”
Friday: North Korea talks were Trump’s decision
“That is a decision the president took himself. I spoke to him very early this morning about that decision and we had a very good conversation. President Trump has said for some time that he was open to talks and he would willingly meet with Kim when conditions were right. And I think in the president’s judgement that time has arrived now.”
Monday: Russia warned on UK spy poisoning
“What we’ve seen is a pivot on their part to be more aggressive. And this is very, very concerning to me and others that there seems to be a certain unleashing of activity that we don’t fully understand what the objective behind that is […] It certainly will trigger a response. I’ll leave it at that.”
Kelly called and woke Tillerson at about 2.30am on Saturday, as the secretary toured Africa. The White House claimed Kelly made clear the president wanted Tillerson to step aside and that he should return to Washington as soon as possible.
State department officials said Kelly told Tillerson only that there might be a presidential tweet that would concern him and did not indicate what it might say or when it might appear, the Associated Press reported. Journalists travelling with Tillerson said he appeared upbeat on Monday and gave no hint his job was in jeopardy.
Then came the tweet, shown by a senior aide to Tillerson. Steve Goldstein, the under-secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, issued a statement that said: “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, and still believes strongly that public service is a noble calling and not to be regretted.”
Goldstein also said Tillerson had “every intention of staying”. A few hours later Goldstein himself was dismissed, apparently for publicly contradicting the White House.
Trump appeared calm on a chilly Tuesday morning as he stepped out of the White House. Pausing on his way to the Marine One helicopter before heading to California, he insisted he had been “talking about this for a long time”.
The president said: “I actually got along well with Rex, but really it was a different mindset, a different thinking. When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible. I guess he thought it was OK. I wanted to either break it or do something and he felt a little bit differently. So we were not really thinking the same.”
Tillerson has argued strenuously that the US should abide by the agreement with Tehran about its nuclear ambitions that was reached under Barack Obama in 2015. Pompeo is a longstanding opponent of the deal.
Last summer, Tillerson was reported to have called Trump a “fucking moron”, a report he did not deny.
Trump was asked twice if he had fired Tillerson “because he called you a moron”. The president twice said he could not hear, then said: “I respect his intellect. I respect the process that we’ve all gone through together. We have a very good relationship for whatever reason, chemistry, whatever it is – why do people get along?
“I’ve always, right from the beginning, from day one, I’ve gotten along well with Mike Pompeo, and frankly I get along well with Rex too. I wish Rex a lot of good things. I think he’s going to be very happy. I think Rex will be much happier now.”
On Monday, Tillerson issued a much sharper response to the nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in the UK than the White House, naming Russia as a suspect, a step Trump’s spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, had avoided. Media reports suggested the White House was furious at being made to look soft on Russia.
But a senior White House official claimed the firing was related to “upcoming talks with North Korea and various ongoing trade negotiations”. Responding to a question about his announcement of a meeting with Kim shortly after Tillerson said talks were “a long way” off, Trump said: “No, I really didn’t discuss it very much with him, honestly.
“I made that decision by myself. Rex wasn’t, as you know, in this country. I made the North Korea decision with consultation from many people but I made that decision by myself.”
Tillerson’s CEO approach was ill-suited to the state department, critics say, and it has been diminished and marginalised over the past year. The latest shake-up comes after the departures of the White House staff secretary, Rob Porter, communications director Hope Hicks and economic adviser Gary Cohn in as many weeks – an unprecedented turnover rate. But none has the international implications of a change to secretary of state.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic minority leader in the House, said: “Whenever Tillerson’s successor goes into meetings with foreign leaders, his credibility will be diminished as someone who could be here today and gone tomorrow.”
In a statement, Pompeo said he was “deeply grateful to President Trump”.
Pompeo and Haspel face tough confirmation battles in the Senate.
Haspel, who joined the CIA in 1985, reportedly oversaw the torture of terrorism suspects in 2002 and later took part in an order to destroy videos documenting their interrogations at a “black site” prison in Thailand.
Two CIA contract psychologists who helped establish “enhanced interrogation” procedures sought to oblige Haspel to testify last year in a legal suit brought by torture victims, in the hope of demonstrating they were acting on CIA instructions. The justice department prevented her appearing in court.
Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said Haspel was “unfit to lead the CIA” and “should be prosecuted not promoted”.