Tillerson Could Be Replaced by CIA’s Pompeo at State Dep’t

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson answers a reporter’s question about North Korea while he meets with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, left, at the State Department in Washington on Thursday. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

(CN) – The White House is discussing a plan to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA director Mike Pompeo, according to multiple reports Thursday.

Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, broke the story Thursday morning, basing its report on the statements of two administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Other news organizations, including the Associated Press and CNN, quickly followed with their own reports.

Speculation about Tillerson’s future at State has been rife since summer after reports surfaced that the secretary referred to President Donald Trump as a “moron” during a meeting at the Pentagon. Tillerson later offered an oblique denial he had said such a thing.

He later admitted during an interview with NBC News that he was on the verge of resigning this summer, but Vice President Mike Pence convinced him not to leave.

During a White House news  conference Thursday morning with Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the Crown Prince of Bahrain, reporters asked the president if wished to see Tillerson stay at his post.

“He’s here. Rex is here,” the president said, before leaving the room.

According to the White House Press Office, only Chief of Staff John Kelly and press secretary Sarah Sanders accompanied Trump and Al Khalifa into the room where reporters were gathered. Tillerson was not there, nor was he spotted by the pool.

Fielding questions later, Sanders reiterated the president’s assurance that his secretary of state was in the building.

“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 did not immediately return a request for comment.

The New York Times reported Thursday that Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former South Carolina governor, is also being considered as Tillerson’s replacement.

Administration officials and individuals familiar with White House plans have spoken about the possibility of a broad shakeup in President Donald Trump’s national security team. But the timing of such a change is unclear.

Also unclear is whether Pompeo has been approached about the Cabinet reshuffle, but another administration official said he is open to taking the job.

A senior administration official who spoke recently with Tillerson says the former Exxon Mobil CEO felt secure in his position and was focused on his State Department reorganization and other diplomacy matters.

Shakeups are nothing new for the Trump administration, but the seemingly consistent flow of people in and out of government doesn’t bode well for a functioning state department or government, said Elizabeth Hempowicz, director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight.

“The chaos does not inspire confidence that the people working inside the agencies have continuity and it calls into question the ability these people have to even do their jobs,” she said, adding concern stretches beyond just oversight, but proper government functioning.

The high turnover “isn’t the way to shrink government,” Hempowicz added.

Gordon Adams, an American University professor who worked in the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration, said Thursday the reports on Tillerson and his tenuous place in the administration aren’t surprising.

“Tillerson has been hanging by a thread for some months now,” Adams said. “He’s not been getting good press with respect to his stewardship and when the budget for his department was cut, he asked for 10 percent of foreign service officials to leave and other senior officials were leaving in droves. But it’s hard to know: was he pushed or did he jump?”

When speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Tillerson played down reports of vacancies at the State Department, saying critics relied on misleading numbers to slam his performance as secretary.

But Adams said while Tillerson may have been a fine CEO at ExxonMobil, running the State Department requires an entirely different skill set.

“Running a federal bureaucracy is not like running a corporation,” Adams said. “It’s simply not and it never will be. You can’t sit at your desk and say do this, do that and have it happen. You’re a temporary resident in a permanent infrastructure that will be there after you leave. He came into the State Department with no knowledge of the institution and doesn’t know how policy process works, he never worked in it, doesn’t really grasp it.”

Tillerson said he doesn’t foresee Haley leaving the UN, and believes Pompeo, a former congressman with a military background, might be a better fit, although there are a lot of unknowns.

“We do not know how [Pompeo] has been viewed at the CIA or how the agency has reacted to his leadership,” Adams said. “What we do know is there was a long period of time when the CIA and the intelligence community was getting disrespected by White House regularly and the president was very hard on them in first few months [of the administration].”

That said, Adams suggested Pompeo’s current position makes him an easy choice for the president.

“Trump has little experience in international affairs, and … when the intelligence community gives you these wonderful sounding briefings, they get your attention,” he said. “They’re full of information and insider secrets and they’re really sexy, quite frankly. I have a sense the president has been folded into the attractiveness of knowing intelligence and it’s given Pompeo the upper hand since he’s over there a lot delivering those briefings. His reputation has moved up in the president’s mind.”

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