President Donald Trump’s administration downplayed reports Thursday of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s imminent departure, saying no personnel changes had been made even as Tillerson made unscheduled visits to the White House.
POLITICO reported earlier this month that CIA Director Mike Pompeo had emerged as the favorite to replace Tillerson as head of the State Department. The New York Times on Thursday added that the White House had developed a plan to force out the embattled secretary of state and replace him with Pompeo in the next few weeks. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) would likely replace Pompeo at the CIA, the Times said.
In the wake of the report, which cast White House chief of staff John Kelly as the architect of the plan, Tillerson made what a State Department spokeswoman said were two ordinary trips to the White House. Neither his public schedule nor the daily White House guidance had included a visit to the White House.
“He remains, as I have been told, committed to doing this job,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters. “He does serve at the pleasure of the president. This is a job that he enjoys. He’s continuing with his meetings. He’s continuing with his calls.”
Nauert said Kelly called the department on Thursday morning to say “that the rumors are not true, that those reports are not true.” She repeatedly stressed, however, that Tillerson serves at the pleasure of the president.
Trump, asked about Tillerson’s fate in the administration earlier Thursday, gave no information. “He’s here,” the president told them. “Rex is here.”
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the White House has “no personnel announcements at this time.” She later implied that Trump maintains confidence in Tillerson but didn’t say so definitively.
“When the president loses confidence in someone, they will no longer serve in the capacity that they’re in,” she told reporters at Thursday’s briefing. “The president was here today with the secretary of state. They engaged in a foreign leader visit and are continuing to work together to close out what we’ve seen to be an incredible year.”
Sanders added that Tillerson’s future — “right now” — is to continue working with Trump to carry out his agenda. She denied having any knowledge of the source of the Times’ report but was adamant that Tillerson would soldier on.
“The secretary of state’s a pretty tough guy,” she said. “I think he’ll be just fine carrying his job out.”
Nauert conveyed a similar sentiment, describing Tillerson as an “unflappable” leader “whose feathers don’t get ruffled very easily.” She said he “brushed off” the reports of a White House plan to oust him and is “just going on about his business,” including next week’s trip to Europe.
To her knowledge, Nauert said, Tillerson did not broach the Times’ report during either meeting with the president. While Trump and Tillerson have policy disagreements, she continued, “I know that the president certainly respects Secretary Tillerson. I know that they’ve had certainly a cordial relationship.”
“Where that relationship is today, I can’t speak to that,” she cautioned. “I have not personally been in the room with the secretary and the president at the same time. So there’s not too much that I can really say about that, other than the secretary serves at the pleasure of the president, and the secretary had two meetings with the president today.”
As recently as two weeks ago, the White House had said Trump’s relationship with Tillerson remained strong, despite reports of a strain between the two. Trump tweeted in October that Tillerson was “wasting his time” negotiating with North Korea, and the secretary of state reportedly threatened to resign earlier this summer and called the president a “moron.”
“The president is very pleased with his entire national security team, which includes Secretary Tillerson and Director Pompeo,” White House principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah told POLITICO earlier this month. “Together, they have led the world toward unprecedented pressure on North Korea, are crushing ISIS in Iraq and Syria and have convinced NATO members to contribute more to the common defense.”
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