by Andrew BEATTY/Agence France-Presse
Rex Tillerson’s political future appeared to hang by a thread Thursday, with President Donald Trump refusing to rule out his imminent departure as secretary of state.
Amid reports of a plan to replace the former oil man with CIA director Mike Pompeo — who is seen as more amenable to the president’s hardline views — Trump passed up an opportunity to publicly back his embattled top diplomat.
Asked if he wants Tillerson to remain in his post, Trump said only that “Rex is here” at the White House, a break from the usual expression of confidence in such a circumstances.
A senior White House official did not deny reports that Tillerson would be replaced, a rumor that has been circulating for months, but quibbled with the suggestion a plan was being rolled out.
The New York Times earlier on Thursday quoted unnamed senior administration officials as saying Trump had soured on Tillerson and was ready for a change at the State Department, probably around the end of the year.
The White House did little to scotch the rumors.
“There are no personnel announcements at this time,” said press secretary Sarah Sanders.
“Secretary Tillerson continues to lead the State Department and the entire cabinet is focused on completing this incredibly successful first year of president Trump’s administration.”
The State Department said that Tillerson enjoys his job as Washington’s top diplomat and intends to stay on.
Spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly had called the State Department to assure officials that the reports that he was to be replaced were untrue.
– ‘More control’ –
Trump and Tillerson have aired striking differences in public.
Trump surprised many observers when he tweeted that Tillerson was “wasting his time” pursuing contacts with North Korea, and Tillerson was quoted as having said that the president was a “moron.”
The former ExxonMobil executive has also defended the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump last month disavowed.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who has aligned himself with Tillerson’s efforts in the North Korean crisis, said when asked about reports the top diplomat may be on the way out: “I make nothing of it, there’s nothing to it.”
“Certainly, they will have areas of disagreement, when it comes to policy. Of that there’s no doubt, and it’s very clear. The secretary has spoken to that himself,” Nauert said, insisting that Trump welcomes having policy options to choose from.
It was not clear Thursday whether the president had given final approval to the reported cabinet changes, but he has previously tried to push advisors out rather than sack them outright.
Under the purported plan, Pompeo would be replaced at the CIA by Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas and a hawk on Iran and an important Trump ally on national security issues.
A Cotton aide told AFP that “Senator Cotton’s focus is on serving Arkansans in the Senate.”
His departure would leave Republicans with another seat to defend, at a time when their Senate majority already in question.
Cotton won his seat easily in 2014, and is tipped as a future presidential contender, but Trump’s unpopularity means Republicans can no longer assume victory in even deep red states.
The CIA declined to comment.
Analysts saw the reported move as evidence that Trump is trying to take more control over a foreign policy that at times has seem detached from the president’s own rhetoric.
“Trump is trying to find a way to hire people who are loyal to him and will help him push back against the establishment,” Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution told AFP.
“Pompeo and Cotton have both convinced Trump they fit the bill,” he added. “Overall, it’s a sign that Trump wants more control over his own foreign policy.”