Trump denies Tillerson out as secretary of state

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson turns to leave after a media opportunity with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj at the State Department in Washington, Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. Tillerson is dismissing as "laughable" reports that the White House is trying to get rid of him. Tillerson was asked about the reports during a photo-op with the visiting Libyan prime minister. Multiple officials say White House is considering a plan to replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
By  | 

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump on Friday denied he wants to oust Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, calling reports to that effect “fake news,” as his top diplomat brushed off speculation that he has lost the confidence of the White House.

As Tillerson went about his normal schedule of diplomatic activities, including two meetings with Trump, the president said his secretary of state is “not leaving.”

“The media has been speculating that I fired Rex Tillerson or that he would be leaving soon - FAKE NEWS!” Trump tweeted. “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!”

The tweet was Trump’s strongest endorsement of his top diplomat since senior White House officials on Thursday began telling reporters that a plan had been devised to push Tillerson out and replace him with CIA chief Mike Pompeo. Immediately after reports of the plan emerged, Trump offered only tepid support for Tillerson, noting only that he was at the White House for a previously scheduled meeting.

The halfhearted backing amid the swirl of speculation over Tillerson’s imminent demise had threatened to impair his effectiveness, particularly as he prepares for an official trip to Europe next week.

On Friday, Tillerson attended two meetings at the White House with Trump — one with Libya’s visiting prime minister and then a lunch with the president and Defense Secretary James Mattis. Before those meetings, Tillerson told reporters at the State Department that speculation he was on his way out was “laughable.”

Tillerson aides had said the secretary was sanguine and remained comfortable in his role despite the turmoil in Trump’s national security team centering on him. Aides said Tillerson would continue to serve until the president asked him not to and stressed that such a request had not been made.

The officials were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Although Tillerson looks safe for now, he will be losing a senior aide and conduit to the public in coming weeks.

R.C. Hammond, who has run State Department strategic communications since Tillerson took office, will leave his post in mid-December, officials said.

The departure of Hammond, one of the few senior Tillerson aides who was accessible to journalists, may hurt the department’s already difficult task of defending the secretary against a slew of negative reports about his leadership, particularly after senior White House officials amplified them Thursday.

According to senior White House officials, the plan centered around replacing Tillerson with Pompeo, which would have led to a major realignment early in Trump’s term. It would create a vacancy atop the CIA that officials said could be filled by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

Such an overhaul could produce a significant shift in both the tone and direction of the president’s foreign policy, removing it from the understated former oil man whose style has never fit well with Trump’s.

It is exceedingly rare for a secretary of state, America’s face on the global stage, to be fired or to serve for a year or less. Nor is it common for presidents to have such a significant Cabinet revamp so soon after taking office.

“There’s no question this is incredibly damaging to whatever credibility the secretary had left,” said Derek Chollet, a former State Department, Pentagon and National Security Council official in the Obama administration.

Friction between the president and the nation’s top diplomat has grown increasingly public through the year.

After a report in October that Tillerson had called the president a “moron,” Tillerson appeared before cameras to pledge fealty to his boss. Soon after, Trump publicly challenged his secretary to an IQ match.

For Tillerson, who left his job as Exxon Mobil’s CEO, a premature departure from the Cabinet has seemed increasingly inevitable.

When Tillerson was tapped for the job late last year, many Trump critics expressed quiet relief that he’d picked a sober “adult” who could form a counterweight to the president’s brasher, more impulsive approach, especially on critical matters of war and peace.

Yet divisions on key foreign policy issues emerged quickly, and Trump has repeatedly undermined Tillerson by voicing positions at odds with his.

When Tillerson in June called on Arab nations to ease their blockade on Qatar, Trump hours later lambasted Qatar for funding terrorism. Trump also deemed diplomacy with North Korea a waste of time, when Tillerson was pursuing just that. Tillerson’s advice to Trump to stay in the Paris climate deal and certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal was similarly overruled.

___

Josh Lederman contributed to this report.