Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at a press conference with Nigeria's foreign minister on Monday. Photo: pius utomi ekpei/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Michael C. Bender and
Nancy A. Youssef
WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump fired Rex Tillerson as secretary of state on Tuesday after a contentious 13 month tenure, removing his top diplomat amid persistent disagreements on foreign policy and naming Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo to succeed him.
Mr. Trump said that Gina Haspel, currently deputy director of the CIA and a longtime intelligence official, would succeed Mr. Pompeo as the spy agency’s chief.
Mr. Trump announced the changes in a morning tweet. In comments later as he left the White House for a California trip, Mr. Trump called Mr. Tillerson a “very good man” but said they disagreed on policy, notably the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Mr. Tillerson, in an emotional farewell statement from Washington, didn’t mention Mr. Trump by name but said the president called him from Air Force One early Tuesday afternoon. The call would have been more than three hours after the president announced the firing on Twitter. Mr. Tillerson will remain in his post until March 31.
A former Exxon Mobil Corp. chief executive who had never served in government before assuming the State Department job, Mr. Tillerson has had public and private differences with Mr. Trump over key national-security issues, including the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, the administration’s talks with North Korea, a dispute among Persian Gulf countries and the Paris climate accord.
But tensions seemed to cool in recent months. The president was satisfied with Mr. Tillerson’s performance in Asia, when they visited the continent together in November. And on North Korea, Mr. Trump has moved closer to Mr. Tillerson, who has long supported opening a dialogue with the regime.
Still, two senior administration officials said the president had lost trust in his secretary of state. After agreeing to talks last week with North Korea, Mr. Trump decided to make the move.
On Friday, White House officials called Mr. Tillerson, while he was on a visit to Africa, to encourage him to step aside from his post, or else Mr. Trump would soon fire him, a U.S. official said. Mr. Tillerson cut the trip short and returned to the U.S. early Tuesday and didn’t learn he was terminated until an aide showed him Mr. Trump’s Tuesday tweet, according to an administration official.
“The secretary did not speak to the president this morning and is unaware of the reason,” said Steve Goldstein, undersecretary of state and a key Tillerson aide. “But he is grateful for the opportunity to serve, and still believes strongly that public service is a noble calling and not to be regretted.”
Later Tuesday, the White House fired Mr. Goldstein, officials said. The White House said it was promoting State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert to Mr. Goldstein’s job.
Meanwhile, Mr. Tillerson’s chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, and his deputy chief of staff Christine Ciccone were expected to resign Tuesday evening, a U.S. official said.
Mr. Trump called Mr. Pompeo over the weekend and is believed to have offered him the job in that call, a U.S. official said.
“The president wanted to make sure the transition happens before the conversation takes place with North Korea, and with the trade issues taking effect,” a third senior administration official said.
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Mr. Tillerson said Tuesday that his deputy, John Sullivan, would assume his duties during the transition period. Mr. Sullivan is likely to leave once Mr. Pompeo is confirmed and assembles his own team, officials said.
Mr. Trump, in his comments Tuesday, said he and Mr. Pompeo, who has said he feared the Iran nuclear deal threatened national security, were “always on the same wavelength.”
In October, Mr. Tillerson publicly denied longstanding rumors about his possible resignation after a report that he had referred to Mr. Trump as a “moron” and had to be talked out of quitting by Vice President Mike Pence and others.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was traveling in Afghanistan when Mr. Tillerson was fired. Mr. Mattis declined to comment Tuesday, according to a spokesman, Capt. Jeff Davis.
Messrs. Tillerson and Mattis were generally in agreement on a variety of issues, according to U.S. officials, forming a potent bloc within the Cabinet.
Mr. Tillerson’s departure leaves Mr. Mattis as one of the few Cabinet members who have expressed support for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Mr. Mattis has said he wouldn’t have signed the deal but thought the U.S. should honor its commitment.
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Mr. Pompeo, a former congressman from Kansas, was among the few outsiders to Mr. Trump’s circle to develop a close relationship with the president, through the daily intelligence brief Mr. Pompeo conducted each morning. Mr. Pompeo, at times, would bring in CIA staffers to explain a particular issue or how they obtained a key piece of intelligence.
Mr. Pompeo’s name frequently appeared on short lists for jobs inside the White House, including as a possible successor to Chief of Staff John Kelly.
As CIA director, Mr. Pompeo demanded the Counterintelligence Mission Center report to him, and some said that hampered the agency’s ability to aggressively pursue any possible collusion between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign.
Most notably, he delicately walked a line between a president who frequently criticized the intelligence community and the agents under his command angered by the president’s remarks.
On Sunday, Mr. Pompeo—and not Mr. Tillerson or Defense Secretary Jim Mattis—appeared on the Sunday talk shows to discuss a possible meeting between Mr. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Mr. Pompeo has previously said that Mr. Kim is the biggest threat to U.S. security and that the leader must not have access to his nuclear stockpile, and he is expected to pursue a harder line on the country than Mr. Tillerson.
Ms. Haspel, who joined the CIA in 1985, is a career intelligence officer who has held assignments in its clandestine operations division. When she was named deputy director, her appointment was seen as likely to reassure colleagues bruised by Mr. Trump’s criticism of the intelligence community.
Gina Haspel Photo: CIA
Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Ms. Haspel was part of a team of officials who oversaw the CIA’s detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists, using techniques that many experts and lawmakers since have described as torture, current and former officials have said.
Former officials who worked with Ms. Haspel have defended her role in the program, saying it was deemed legal and appropriate at the time by senior administration officials.
Mr. Tillerson’s departure raised questions for others in the Trump administration. He in recent months had become close with Mr. Mattis and Mr. Kelly, and the trio was often seen whispering together outside the Oval Office.
—Felicia Schwartz, Gordon Lubold and Jessica Donati contributed to this article.
Write to Michael C. Bender at Mike.Bender@wsj.com and Nancy A. Youssef at Nancy.Youssef@wsj.com