UPDATE: President Donald Trump spoke with reporters Tuesday at the White House regarding his decision to fire outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Amid the background noise of a helicopter, Trump insisted the issue was a matter of having someone who agreed with him on core issues heading the State Department.
“Rex and I have been talking about this for a long time,” Trump told the press. “We got along actually quite well. But we disagreed on things.”
Among the items of disagreement, Trump cited the Iran deal, initially put into place by the administration of President Barack Obama.
“I wanted to either break it or do something,” Trump said. “And he felt a little bit differently.”
His planned appointment to succeed Tillerson, current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, is more aligned with his beliefs, the president said.
“With Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process,” Trump said.
VIDEO: US President Donald Trump speaks of his disagreements with ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, including over the Iran nuclear deal, as he explains his decision to replace him with Mike Pompeo pic.twitter.com/41I8t8BN7U— AFP news agency (@AFP) March 13, 2018
Trump’s comments contradict what others have suggested regarding Tillerson's ouster — including when he and the secretary discussed his removal from the State Department.
Steve Goldstein, who served as under secretary of public affairs under Tillerson, said that the secretary of state was not aware of the reason for being fired, adding that Tillerson “had had every intention of staying” in his position before this morning’s Twitter announcement. But almost immediately after making that statement himself, Goldstein was also fired from the State Department by the Trump administration.
Trump appeared unable to hear (or perhaps unwilling to answer) a question regarding comments allegedly made by Tillerson in the past, over whether his termination was due to the latter calling the president a “moron.”
Trump also commented that Tillerson’s firing may not be the last.
“I'm really at a point where we're getting very close to having the cabinet and other things that I want,” he said.
But one would assume Trump had the cabinet he wanted when he first began his tenure — after all, the president insisted during his campaign that he would only select “the best people” to serve in his administration.
So far, however, more than two out of every five appointments he’s made have resigned or been fired by the president, a rate that’s higher than what’s been seen during the administrations of the previous four presidents at the two-year mark (we’re only 13 months into Trump’s tenure).
Trump’s penchant for firing people, in addition to those who have voluntarily left, is a sign that the White House is in disarray. This presidency appears to be in a free fall moment, and it’s unclear whether this is just the beginning of a major staff shakeup or not.
The surprise ouster of Rex Tillerson from President Donald Trump’s administration has many wondering whether comments made by the former secretary of state Monday about Russia had been the last straw.
Trump made the announcement on Tuesday morning, tweeting that current CIA head Mike Pompeo would replace Tillerson at the State Department.
Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! 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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2018
Tillerson was removed from his position, an appointment he had accepted reluctantly early in the Trump administration.
“I didn’t want this job. I didn’t seek this job,” he said in March 2017. “My wife told me I’m supposed to do this.”
Aides to the former secretary noted that Tillerson's firing was especially peculiar, given that the president didn't notify him before making the announcement on Twitter. Indeed, many suggested that Tillerson found out about his own termination through the president's tweet itself.
"The secretary did not speak to the President and is unaware of the reason" for being fired, undersecretary for public diplomacy Steve Goldstein said in a statement.
The relationship between the president and the man who was, until this morning, fourth in line to succeed him has long been tumultuous. Last summer, for instance, reports of Tillerson privately calling Trump a “moron” made headlines. It resulted in Trump suggesting the two compare IQ tests, which never ended up happening.
Reports of bitterness between the two continued into the fall; and toward late November, many people were speculating that the president would be firing Tillerson. Trump denied those reports in December, calling them “fake news” in a tweet and suggesting while they may disagree on certain subjects, the secretary was going nowhere.
The media has been speculating that I fired Rex Tillerson or that he would be leaving soon - FAKE NEWS! He’s not leaving and while we disagree on certain subjects, (I call the final shots) we work well together and America is highly respected again!https://t.co/FrqiPLFJ1E— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 1, 2017
It seemed the matter was settled after those tweets. But following a press conference yesterday with press secretary Sarah Sanders — in which she expressed condolences for the poisoning of a British spy but offered no condemnation for Russia, the nation believed to be behind the attack — Tillerson took a different direction.
“We have full confidence in the UK's investigation and its assessment that Russia was likely responsible for the nerve agent attack that took place in Salisbury last week,” Tillerson said on Monday.
He was fired just half a day later.
Tillerson’s removal comes on the same day of another personnel shakeup. Trump’s longtime aide, John McEntee, has also been removed from the White House. McEntee’s departure is due to an investigation into him related to serious financial crimes, CNN reports. That investigation is unrelated to the current investigation being led by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Turnover at the White House is common, but not at the rate currently seen under the Trump administration. As NPR reports, Trump has had a higher rate of turnover in the first 13 and a half months of his tenure than his immediate four predecessors had in their first 24 months in office.
There are various reasons for why many staffers have left or been fired from their positions in or near the Oval Office. But were Tillerson’s comments on Monday the reason for his own ouster? It’s unclear at this time. What we do know, however, is that Trump appears to have an aversion to any discussion on Russia. Tillerson may have been playing with fire in making the statements he did yesterday.
His condemnation of that nation went against the administration’s official line on the subject. Since the Trump administration refused to enforce sanctions against the Kremlin, despite almost the entire Congress voting to do so, it does leave one wondering: Is the line for crossing Trump doing something to upset Putin? The departure of his secretary of state seems to suggest as much.