Rumours of Rex Tillerson’s departure from his position as U.S. Secretary of State have been swirling ever since this past Thursday, when Trump avoided answering questions about Tillerson’s future at the White House by simply answering, “He’s here. Rex is here.”
Even before this Thursday, however, there had been reports of the two men’s clashes: Tillerson publicly denounced Trump’s response to the Neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, saying the President “speaks for himself,” and the two men have long disagreed over policy toward Arab allies, the Iran nuclear deal and North Korea. Tillerson did not deny claims of having called Trump a “moron” during a meeting with national security officials, and Trump has tweeted doubts about Tillerson’s diplomatic decisions — once saying that Tillerson was “wasting his time” trying to seek a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear stand-off with North Korea. Replacing Tillerson with the current CIA director, Tom Pompeo, would create a cabinet more loyal to Trump and would bring more consistency to U.S. diplomacy, as Tillerson and Trump have contradicted one another so often.
According to the New York Times, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has arranged Tillerson’s replacement. However, shortly after this report, Kelly called the State Department to deny the claims, according to State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert. Nauert insisted that Tillerson will maintain his position as Secretary of State and will embark on his European tour next week, where he will meet with NATO’s foreign ministers and visit Stockholm, Vienna and Paris. Nauert conceded that Tillerson and Trump do have their “areas of disagreement when it comes to policy,” but she emphasized that they have a “cordial relationship” and that Trump values Tillerson’s opinions. When asked whether these rumours would impede Tillerson’s authority and ability to lead, Nauert simply answered, “The secretary is someone whose feathers don’t get ruffled very easily.” Similarly, when White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was asked whether the rumours/press were making it difficult for Tillerson to do his job, she responded, “The Secretary of State’s a pretty tough guy. I think he’ll be just fine to carry his job out.” She reiterated that there were no personnel announcements at this time.
As for Tillerson, it’s business as usual: early Thursday morning he met the Republican Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, and close White House ally, Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Corker later informed reporters that Tillerson had not yet heard news of imminent changes, saying, ‘He’s conducting business, as is the norm, and is unaware of anything changing.’ Mattis, when asked what he makes of the rumours, he simply replied, “I make nothing of it, there’s nothing to it.”
Many have expressed doubts about the claims: President of Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former NATO ambassador Ivo Daalder said, ‘“A decision by President Trump to remove Rex Tillerson as secretary of state would be unprecedented. It’s been more than a century since a secretary of state has been fired.” An undisclosed source close to President Trump confirmed that Trump was not yet ready to release Tillerson yet. Many, however, speculate that given Trump’s affinity for drama and theatrics, he might simply be delaying the news of Tillerson’s release for the maximum impact.
On Friday Trump responded to the rumours, denying any plans to remove Tillerson from office.
Photo: Carolyn Kaster / AP