Tillerson Out as Secretary of State, Replaced by Pompeo

In this Jan. 10, 2018 photo, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

(CN) – President Donald Trump announced a major shakeup in his cabinet Tuesday, removing Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and replacing him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

In a tweet shortly before 8 a.m. eastern time Tuesday, Trump also announced that Gina Haspel will become the new head of the CIA, and the first woman chosen to fill that position.

Haspel joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1985. In February 2017 President Trump  appointed her the agency’s deputy director.

Both appointments are subject to congressional approval, but the transition has already been plagued with controversy.

Even as word of Tillerson’s firing was being announced, CNN was reporting the former secretary of state had not spoken to the president, was “blindsided by the announcement,” and had not been told the reason for his removal.

That reporting was allegedly based on statements made by Under Secretary of State Steve Goldstein. Hours later, Goldstein had also been fired.

During a brief appearance before reporters shortly after 2 p.m., a shaken-sounding Tillerson said he would be vacating his office at the end of the day and formally leave the State Department at the end of the month.

Tillerson told reporters that he spoke earlier in the day to President Trump and White House chief of staff John Kelly “to ensure we have clarity as to the days ahead.”

He also said he would urge other State Department officials to remain in their jobs.

“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. “Between now and then, I will address a few administrative matters related to my departure and work towards a smooth and orderly transition.”

Most of the Tillerson’s prepared remarks were directed to State Department staff and America’s allies.

“Nothing is possible without allies and partners though and much work remains to establish a clear view of the nature and future relationship with China including how should we deal with one another over the next 50 years,” Tillerson said.

“Much work remains [in order to] respond to the troubling behavior on part of the Russian government,” he continued. “Russia must assess carefully how its interests are in best interest of Russian people and the world. Continuing on their current trajectory will lead to greater isolation on their part, [and that is] a situation that is not in anyone’s interest.”

Tillerson also said that much remains to be done to “achieve our mission on behalf of the American people, and much work remains with our allies and with partners.”

To the personnel of the State Department, Tillerson said it had been a privilege to serve beside them for the last 14 months, “and witnessing the quiet, hard work you do every day to support this government with your tax dollars.”

“I’ll now return to private life, a private citizen, proud of opportunity I’ve had to serve my country,” he said.

He left without answering questions from reporters.

Reaction to changes was predictably swift. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who has often been rumored to be a potential replacement for Tillerson, said on Twitter Monday that the move a “great decision by the president.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer also took to Twitter. “The instability of this administration in just about every area weakens America,” the New York Democrat said.

“If he’s confirmed, we hope that Mr. Pompeo will turn over a new leaf and will start toughening up our policies towards Russia and Putin,” Schumer added.

In a written statement issued by the White House, Trump said: “I am proud to nominate the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo, to be our new Secretary of State.  Mike graduated first in his class at West Point, served with distinction in the U.S. army, and graduated with Honors from Harvard Law School. He went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives with a proven record of working across the aisle.”

The president continued: “As Director of the CIA, Mike has earned the praise of members in both parties by strengthening our intelligence gathering, modernizing our defensive and offensive capabilities, and building close ties with our friends and allies in the international intelligence community.  I have gotten to know Mike very well over the past 14 months, and I am confident he is the right person for the job at this critical juncture.  He will continue our program of restoring America’s standing in the world, strengthening our alliances, confronting our adversaries, and seeking the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

The president urged swift confirmation of the candidates, calling his nomination of Haspel “a historic milestone.”

“Mike and Gina have worked together for more than a year, and have developed a great mutual respect,” the president added.

Haspel briefly ran a secret CIA prison in Thailand where accused terrorists Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri were waterboarded in 2002, according to the Associated Press.

Those incidents were revived by members of the Senate Intelligence committee on Feb. 8, 2017, when they urged Trump to reconsider her appointment as deputy director of the CIA.

In a letter to CIA Director Pompeo, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said: “My colleagues Senators [Ron] Wyden, D-Ore., and [Martin] Heinrich, D-N.M., have stated that classified information details why the newly appointed Deputy Director is ‘unsuitable’ for the position and have requested that this information be declassified. I join their request.”

In 2013, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., reportedly blocked Haspel’s promotion to head the agency’s clandestine service over her role in the program.

In the same release from the White House, Pompeo said he’s proud of the CIA and is confident the agency “will continue to thrive” under Haspel’s leadership.

Of his own immediate future, Pompeo said, “If confirmed, I look forward to guiding the world’s finest diplomatic corps in formulating and executing the president’s foreign policy.

“In my time as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, I have worked alongside many remarkable Foreign Service officers and Department of State leaders serving here in the United States and on the very edge of freedom,” he continued. “I know I will learn from them and, as President Trump set out in his State of the Union address, work hard to ensure that “our nation will forever be safe and strong and proud and mighty and free.”

Haspel said she is “grateful” and “humbled” by her appointment to head the CIA. “If confirmed, I look forward to providing President Trump the outstanding intelligence support he has grown to expect during his first year in office,” she said.

The president and Tillerson had a sometimes rocky relationship, reflecting a marked difference in approach and attitude on international affairs.

On Monday, as he departed for a trip to California, Trump told reporters at the White House that he and Tillerson “had a different mindset … a different thinking,” especially when it came to the Iran nuclear deal, but extending to other issues as well.

“We’ve been talking about this for a long time,” Trump said of the change. “We disagreed on things … So we were not thinking the same. With Mike Pompeo, we have a similar thought process,” the president said.

Last year, Tillerson was forced to deny reports he referred to Trump as a “moron.”

After reports of that statement appeared in the press, Trump challenged Tillerson to an IQ test.

The differences between the two men flared anew Monday after Tillerson criticized Russia over the poisoning of a double agent and the agent’s daughter in London.

Earlier in the day, the White House declined to place blame for the incident, despite claims from British Prime Minister Theresa May.

In other news from the West Wing, President Trump on Tuesday fired his White House personal assistant John McEntee, who had been with the president since early in his campaign.

The president’s campaign then announced McEntee will rejoin the campaign as a senior adviser of operations.

Brandi Buchman contributed to this report.

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