Donald Trump sent US diplomacy into fresh turmoil on Tuesday by firing his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson – said to have discovered his fate via Twitter – and promoting two officials condemned by human rights groups for endorsing or overseeing torture.
A visibly shaken and demoralised Tillerson delivered a brief statement to reporters at the state department. He did not criticise Trump’s decision but nor did he thank the president.
Tillerson said he received a call “a little after noon time” from Trump as well as chief of staff John Kelly “to ensure we have clarity as to the days ahead”. He said the top priority was to “ensure an orderly and smooth transition” as the country faces “policy and national security challenges”.
Effective at the end of the day, he added, all duties will be delegated to deputy secretary John Sullivan. Tillerson’s time at state will formally end at midnight on 31 March. He was “proud” of his service and would go back to being a private citizen, he said.
Trump stunned Washington again by announcing in a tweet that Tillerson would be replaced by the CIA director, Mike Pompeo, a hardliner more closely aligned with his “America first” vision. In turn, Gina Haspel, Pompeo’s deputy, would be nominated as the CIA’s first female director.
Pompeo has been criticised for claiming that waterboarding does not constitute torture and opposing the closure of Guantánamo Bay. Haspel has come under scrutiny for her role in the CIA’s torture programme under George W Bush and the agency’s destruction of evidence.
As America’s top diplomat Tillerson, 65, had the thankless task of playing second fiddle to Trump around the world. His departure had long been predicted after a series of clashes over policy but came at a critical juncture, as the president threatens a global trade war and prepares to meet the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un. But the manner of his termination was abrupt even by the standards of the current White House.
John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, called and woke Tillerson around 2.30am on Saturday, as the secretary toured Africa. The White House claimed Kelly made clear the president wanted Tillerson to step aside and that he should return to Washington as soon as possible.
State department officials painted a different picture. Kelly told Tillerson only that there might be a presidential tweet that would concern him and did not indicate what the tweet might say or when it might actually appear, the Associated Press reported. Journalists travelling with Tillerson said he appeared upbeat on Monday and gave no hint that his job was in jeopardy.
Then came the tweet, shown by a senior aide to Tillerson, who has acknowledged he does not have a Twitter account. Steve Goldstein, under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, issued a statement that said: “The Secretary did not speak to the President this morning and is unaware of the reason, but he is grateful for the opportunity to serve, and still believes strongly that public service is a noble calling and not to be regretted.”
Goldstein also said Tillerson had “every intention of staying” before his firing. A few hours later, Goldstein himself was dismissed, apparently for publicly contradicting the White House account.
Despite the disarray that seemed likely to rattle international alliances, Trump appeared calm on a chilly Tuesday morning as he stepped out of the White House south portico and was confronted by a crowd of reporters. Pausing on his way to the Marine One helicopter before heading to California, he insisted he had been “talking about this for a long time”.
The president said: “I actually got along well with Rex but really it was a different mindset, a different thinking. When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible. I guess he thought it was OK. I wanted to either break it or do something and he felt a little bit differently. So we were not really thinking the same.”
Tillerson has argued strenuously that the US should abide by the agreement with Tehran about its nuclear ambitions that was reached under Barack Obama in 2015. Pompeo is a longstanding opponent of the deal.
Last summer, Tillerson was reported to have called Trump a “fucking moron”, a report he did not deny.
Trump was asked twice if he had fired Tillerson “because he called you a moron”. The president twice said he could not hear the question, then said: “I respect his intellect. I respect the process that we’ve all gone through together. We have a very good relationship for whatever reason, chemistry, whatever it is – why do people get along?
“I’ve always, right from the beginning, from day one, I’ve gotten along well with Mike Pompeo, and frankly I get along well with Rex too. I wish Rex a lot of good things. I think he’s going to be very happy. I think Rex will be much happier now.”
A graduate of West Point and Harvard and a former Republican congressman, Pompeo is widely seen as more of a loyalist than Tillerson, a former oil executive who had not met Trump before the election and was once challenged by him to an IQ test. The president, by contrast, said he and Pompeo were “on the same wavelength”.
On Monday, Tillerson issued a much sharper response to the nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in the UK than the White House, naming Russia as a suspect, a step Trump’s spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, had avoided. Media reports suggested the White House was furious at being made to look soft on Russia.
The Democratic senator Chris Coons said: “Secretary Tillerson’s firing comes one day after he once again spoke out against Russia when the president would not. Throughout his administration, President Trump has not only turned away from our allies and weakened our commitments to international coalitions, but he has notably refused to address the real threats that we face from Russia.”
But a senior White House official claimed the firing was related to “upcoming talks with North Korea and various ongoing trade negotiations”. Responding to a question about his announcement last week of a meeting with Kim shortly after Tillerson said talks were “a long way” off, Trump said: “No, I really didn’t discuss it very much with him, honestly.
“I made that decision by myself. Rex wasn’t, as you know, in this country. I made the North Korea decision with consultation from many people but I made that decision by myself.”
Tillerson’s CEO approach was ill-suited to the state department, critics say, and it has been diminished and marginalised over the past year. Chris Murphy, a Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, said Tillerson had “systematically and intentionally weakened American diplomacy” and added: “President Trump seems to want someone who does the same thing, only faster and while fawning over the president.”
The latest shake-up comes after the departures of the White House staff secretary, Rob Porter, communications director Hope Hicks and economic adviser Gary Cohn in as many weeks – an unprecedented turnover rate. But none has the international implications of a change to secretary of state.
Nancy Pelosi, Democratic minority leader in the House, said: “Whenever Tillerson’s successor goes into meetings with foreign leaders, his credibility will be diminished as someone who could be here today and gone tomorrow. Continuity in our diplomatic personnel and policies are vital for championing American security, values and interests.”
In a statement, Pompeo said he was “deeply grateful to President Trump” and added: “His leadership has made America safer and I look forward to representing him and the American people to the rest of the world to further America’s prosperity.”
Pompeo and Haspel face tough confirmation battles in the Senate. Their nominations were swiftly condemned by human rights groups, wary that Trump himself has previously voiced support for waterboarding and other techniques.
Haspel, who joined the CIA in 1985, oversaw the torture of terrorism suspects in 2002 and later took part in an order to destroy videos documenting their interrogations at a “black site” prison in Thailand.
Two CIA contract psychologists who helped established “enhanced interrogation” procedures sought to depose Haspel last year in a legal suit brought by torture victims, in the hope of demonstrating they were acting on CIA instructions. The justice department prevented her appearing in court.
Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said: “During the Bush administration, Gina Haspel oversaw the torture of Abu Zubaydah and others at a CIA black site in Thailand, where he was waterboarded 83 times. She was then instrumental in the destruction of the tapes of those interrogations, which were evidence of torture. She is unfit to lead the CIA. Gina Haspel should be prosecuted not promoted.”
Warren added: “We further oppose Mike Pompeo’s appointment to head the state department because he is a loose cannon who acts before he thinks, the opposite of the temperament required for the top diplomatic job. He too has defended and endorsed torture and characterised those complicit in the CIA torture programme as ‘patriots’.”
Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said: “Both Pompeo and Haspel have deeply alarming records when it comes to human rights. Before they assume positions that could have repercussions for human rights around the world, they should be given utmost scrutiny by the Senate in the confirmation process.”