Rex Tillerson’s political future appeared to hang by a thread, with President Donald Trump refusing to rule out his imminent departure as secretary of state.
Amid reports of a plan to replace the former oilman with CIA director Mike Pompeo — who is seen as more amenable to the president’s hard-line 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 rumour that has been circulating for months, but quibbled with the suggestion a plan was being rolled out.
The New York Times earlier yesterday 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 rumours.
“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.
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 yesterday 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.