Donald Trump has sacked his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and announced his intention to replace him with the CIA director Mike Pompeo.
Trump announced the shake-up in a tweet, adding that Gina Haspel, currently Pompeo’s deputy, would become the CIA’s first female director.
Tillerson’s departure had long been predicted after a series of clashes with Trump over policy. But the announcement, made just four hours after the secretary of state landed in Washington after a tour of Africa, took Tillerson unawares.
A state department spokesman, Steve Goldstein, said: “The secretary did not speak to the president 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.”
Tillerson had recently predicted he would stay in office for all of 2018 at least. His official diary for Tuesday said he would be attending meetings and briefings at the state department.
At 9.15am, Trump left the White House for a visit to California, to see prototypes for his border wall. Pausing by the Marine One helicopter to talk to reporters, he said he had been “talking about this for a long time”.
“I’ll be speaking to Rex over a long period of time,” Trump said. “I actually got on well with Rex but it was a different mindset.”
He and Tillerson had “disagreed on things”, he said, including “the Iran deal… So we were not thinking the same. With Mike Pompeo, we have a similar thought process.”
Tillerson has argued strenuously that the US should continue to abide by the agreement with Tehran about its nuclear ambitions that was reached in 2015, under Barack Obama. Pompeo is a longstanding opponent of the deal.
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
A graduate of West Point and Harvard and 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 grew increasingly at odds with the president’s style and policies.
Last summer Tillerson was reported to have referred to Trump as a “fucking moron”, a report he did not deny.
On Monday, Tillerson issued a much stronger response to the nerve agent assassination of 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.
Trump said he would be speaking to British prime minister Theresa May on Tuesday. “It sounds to me like they believe it was Russia,” he said.
Before speaking to the press, Trump issued statements heaping praise on Pompeo and Haspel but had just one line for his outgoing secretary of state.
“Finally, I want to thank Rex Tillerson for his service,” the president wrote. “A great deal has been accomplished over the last 14 months, and I wish him and his family well.”
The White House issued statements of gratitude from Pompeo and Haspel.
“I am deeply grateful to President Trump for permitting me to serve as director of the Central Intelligence Agency and for this opportunity to serve as secretary of state,” Pompeo said.
“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.”
A senior White House official said: “The president wanted to make sure to have his new team in place in advance of the upcoming talks with North Korea and various ongoing trade negotiations.”
Haspel has come under scrutiny for her role in the CIA’s torture programme under the Bush administration and the agency’s subsequent destruction of evidence.
Two CIA contract psychologists who helped established the “enhanced interrogation” procedures sought to depose Haspel last year for their defence against a legal suit brought by torture victims, in the hope of demonstrating they were acting on CIA instructions.
The justice department stepped in to prevent her appearing in court, on grounds of state secrecy.
This story originally appeared in The Guardian. Image courtesy of Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images.