In Replacing Tillerson With Pompeo, Trump Turns to Loyalists Who Reflect ‘America First’ Views

 nytimes.com  3/14/2018 12:17:37 AM   Mark Landler, Maggie Haberman and Gardiner Harris

WASHINGTON — President Trump ousted on Tuesday his secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, the most dramatic in a cascade of personnel moves that suggest Mr. Trump is determined to surround himself with loyalists more willing to reflect his “America First” views.

Mr. Trump announced he would replace Mr. Tillerson with Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director and former Tea Party congressman, who has cultivated a close relationship with the president and has taken a harder line than Mr. Tillerson on critical issues like Iran and North Korea.

Mr. Tillerson’s dismissal, on the heels of Gary D. Cohn’s resignation as Mr. Trump’s chief economic adviser after a dispute over steel tariffs, pulls the Trump administration further out of the economic and foreign policy mainstream and closer to the nationalist ideas that animated Mr. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

It also suggests that after a year of chaotic on-the-job training, Mr. Trump has developed more confidence in his own instincts and wants aides and cabinet members with whom he has good chemistry and who embrace his positions.

As the White House absorbed the news about Mr. Tillerson, rumors swirled that the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, and the secretary of Veterans Affairs, David J. Shulkin, would soon follow him out the door. The sense of disarray was deepened by the purging of Mr. Tillerson’s inner circle and the sudden dismissal of a personal aide to Mr. Trump.

“I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the cabinet and other things I want,” Mr. Trump said Tuesday before leaving for a trip to California. He said he disagreed with Mr. Tillerson on the Iran nuclear deal and on other issues.

“It was a different mind-set,” Mr. Trump said.

Their lack of rapport was evident in the peremptory way the president fired him. Mr. Tillerson learned of it on Tuesday morning when an aide showed him a Twitter post from Mr. Trump announcing the change. But he had gotten a warning last Friday when the chief of staff, John F. Kelly, called to tell him to cut short a trip to Africa and added, “You may get a tweet.”

It was an abrupt end after months of speculation — to a star-crossed tenure for a Texas oil baron who never adapted to the power dynamics of Mr. Trump’s world, or to the president’s worldview. Mr. Tillerson clashed with the White House staff and broke with Mr. Trump on a range of issues, including the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the American response to Russia’s cyberaggression.

However sudden his departure, Mr. Tillerson’s future had seemed tenuous since reports last October that he called Mr. Trump a “moron” in a meeting with colleagues at the Pentagon. Mr. Trump, aides said, never forgave him.

Mr. Tillerson had a hectic schedule of meetings set for Tuesday afternoon. Instead, after a brief phone call with Mr. Trump, he appeared in the State Department briefing room at 2 p.m. to confirm he would hand over his duties to his deputy at midnight.

“What is most important,” he said, his voice thick with emotion, “is to ensure an orderly and smooth transition during a time that the country continues to face significant policy and national security challenges.”

In Mr. Pompeo, the president will have a hawkish secretary of state, who is more skeptical of diplomatic engagement with North Korea, just as Mr. Trump is preparing to meet the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and is far readier to rip up the Iran nuclear deal, two months before Mr. Trump faces his next deadline to decide whether to reimpose sanctions on Tehran.

As Mr. Pompeo’s replacement at the C.I.A., Mr. Trump named the current deputy director, Gina Haspel. A respected career official, she would be the first woman to lead the agency. But Ms. Haspel also oversaw a secret C.I.A. prison in Thailand when a terrorism suspect was waterboarded there and she later drafted a cable ordering the destruction of videotapes documenting brutal interrogations — both of which could complicate her Senate confirmation.

At the Department of Veterans Affairs, Mr. Trump has grown impatient with Mr. Shulkin, a politically moderate former hospital executive who served in the Obama administration. He recently sounded out Rick Perry, the current energy secretary, about taking over the department, according to two people close to the White House.

For Mr. Cohn’s successor, the president said he was seriously considering Larry Kudlow, a Reagan administration official who is now a conservative commentator on CNBC. While Mr. Trump acknowledged differences with him on trade policy, he said Mr. Kudlow had come around to the argument that tariffs were an effective tool in negotiating trade deals.

Besides, he added, “Larry has been a friend of mine for a long time. He backed me very early in the campaign.”

At the White House, officials faced the familiar challenge of presenting a methodical rationale for Mr. Trump’s impulsive moves. One aide said he decided to replace Mr. Tillerson now to have a new team in place before the talks with Mr. Kim, which are scheduled to happen by May. But Mr. Tillerson was the most persistent advocate of opening talks with North Korea.

The White House’s purge extended to Mr. Tillerson’s staff. The under secretary of state for public affairs, Steve Goldstein, was fired after he issued a statement that seemed to contradict the White House. Mr. Tillerson’s chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, and his deputy chief of staff, Christine Ciccone, were also expected to depart.

That followed the early-morning dismissal of Mr. Trump’s aide, John McEntee, who had his security clearance revoked and was escorted from the White House grounds.

A former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, Mr. Tillerson had once been viewed as an intriguing, if unorthodox, cabinet choice. He had deep experience with Middle Eastern potentates, and knew President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia through Exxon’s extensive efforts to explore for oil in Russia.

But Mr. Tillerson’s determination to bring a business sensibility to the State Department backfired, leaving it demoralized and understaffed. Despite his global experience, Mr. Tillerson was ill suited to the public duties of the United States’ chief diplomat and was isolated from the career officials whom he often froze out of the most important policy debates.

“The State Department clearly has not been built into the kind of global organization that one would prefer,” Henry A. Kissinger, a former secretary of state, said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Kissinger said Mr. Pompeo’s political skills would make him a better choice for the job. “I have confidence that Pompeo understands this and will do it because I think he understands the political linkages better,” he said.

Along with Mr. Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Mr. Tillerson had functioned as part of a triumvirate that was viewed as a brake on Mr. Trump. Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, once referred to them as “those people that help separate our country from chaos.”

Mr. Tillerson was close to Mr. Mattis, meeting him regularly for breakfast. The defense secretary, who is traveling in Afghanistan, was not informed beforehand that Mr. Tillerson was being fired, according to an administration official. While Mr. Kelly was an early ally of Mr. Tillerson’s, officials said he cooled on him because of his repeated clashes with the White House.

Mr. Tillerson had a rancorous relationship with both General McMaster and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser. He resented that Mr. Trump had entrusted Mr. Kushner, a 37-year-old diplomatic neophyte, with the Middle East peace portfolio and trade negotiations with Mexico, according to people in the White House.

When the National Security Council tried to send officials on Mr. Tillerson’s trips, an official said, he either objected or excluded them from key meetings. And when the president named his daughter Ivanka Trump to lead a delegation to India, Mr. Tillerson downgraded the status of the State Department officials who accompanied her — irritating the president.

But his policy disagreements with the president appeared to be his undoing: Mr. Tillerson wanted to remain in the Paris climate accord; Mr. Trump decided to leave it. Mr. Tillerson supported preserving the Iran nuclear deal; Mr. Trump loathed the deal as “an embarrassment to the United States.” And Mr. Tillerson called for dialogue to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis, while Mr. Trump threatened a military strike.

Mr. Tillerson also broke with Mr. Trump in the bitter dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar — a decision that cost him with Persian Gulf leaders. The leaders, several of whom are visiting Washington in coming weeks, lobbied the White House to replace Mr. Tillerson with Mr. Pompeo.

At times, White House officials said, Mr. Tillerson’s behavior verged on insubordination. The administration, for example, was extremely cautious in responding to reports that Russia was behind the deadly nerve-gas attack in Britain. But when Mr. Tillerson was asked about it in Africa, he said, “It appears that it clearly came from Russia.”

His statement infuriated the White House, which had crafted its talking points with lawyers at the State Department to keep the United States in lock step with Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain. Instead, an official said, Mr. Tillerson made the White House look like it was soft on Mr. Putin, which he insisted was not the intention.

Mr. Tillerson’s relations inside the State Department were scarcely better. The department’s policymaking process devolved into conversations between Mr. Tillerson and a lone aide, Brian H. Hook, neither of whom had much experience with the countries they discussed.

“The relationship between top management and the bulk of the State Department was toxic,” said Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, a former senior diplomat. “And that was a total mystery because the people at the State Department would work for the devil if he is advancing American interests, which Mr. Tillerson was.”

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