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After months of tension, Tillerson’s State Department tenure comes to abrupt end

Rex Tillerson was sacked Tuesday after 14 months of rocky relations and a long list of policy disputes with President Trump, who announced the secretary of state's firing in a tweet. Judy Woodruff looks back at the many points of contention between Tillerson and Trump, and the circumstances potential successor Mike Pompeo would face at Foggy Bottom.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    He is out. Rex Tillerson was sacked today as United States secretary of state. The president fired him after 14 months of a rocky relationship and a long list of policy disputes.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Rex and I have been talking about this for a long time. We got along actually quite well, but we disagreed on things.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    : Outside the White House this morning, President Trump insisted Rex Tillerson’s ouster shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I actually got along well with Rex, but, really it was a different mind-set. It was a different thinking.

  • Judy Woodruff:

     Tillerson had just returned from a trip to Africa Tuesday morning when he got the word. An aide said in a statement that, in fact, Tillerson had every intention of staying. But he added, “The secretary didn’t speak to the president and is unaware of the reason.”

    Within hours, that official, Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein, was himself fired. Later, Tillerson emerged to say he did have a phone call this afternoon from the president and to spell out just how abrupt the changeover will be.

  • Rex Tillerson:

    What is most important is to ensure an orderly and smooth transition during a time that the country continues to face significant policy and national security challenges. As such, effective at the end of the day, I am delegating all responsibilities of the office of the secretary to Deputy Secretary of State Sullivan.

  • Judy Woodruff:

     The secretary had long been seen as outside the president’s inner circle. He was kept in the dark before last week’s bombshell announcement that Mr. Trump would meet with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. At the time, Tillerson was in the African nation of Djibouti.

  • Rex Tillerson:

    In all honesty, that came as a little bit of a surprise to us as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

     The president reaffirmed today that he didn’t consult his secretary of state about the Kim meeting.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I made that decision myself. Rex wasn’t, as you know, in the country. And I made the North Korea decision with consultation with many people, but I made that decision by myself.

  • Judy Woodruff:

     Last fall, the president had dismissed Tillerson’s push for diplomacy with the North, saying he was wasting his time. The two men were also at odds over Russia. Just last night, Tillerson warned that if Moscow engineered the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain, it was — quote — “certain to trigger a response.”

    Mr. Trump appeared to take a more cautious tone this morning.

  • President Donald Trump:

    As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.

  • Judy Woodruff:

     The Iran nuclear agreement was yet another point of contention. Tillerson argued for staying in the deal, while the president pushed to tear it up.

  • President Donald Trump:

    When you look at the Iran deal, I guess he thought it was OK. I wanted to either break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently. So, we were not really thinking the same.

  • Judy Woodruff:

     On other issues, Tillerson objected to the president’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord. And he warned against moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to no avail.

    Last October, his standing with Mr. Trump took a hit after NBC News reported he’d called the president a moron and considered quitting. Tillerson never directly denied using the term.

    The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, said today that the Trump-Tillerson clashes have damaged America’s standing with foreign nations.

  • Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.:

    Is the president going to change his mind tomorrow? Is the secretary of state going to say something totally different?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The president says that won’t happen with his new pick for state, former Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo, now the director of the CIA

  • President Donald Trump:

    I have worked with Mike Pompeo now for quite some time. Tremendous energy. Tremendous intellect. We’re always on the same wavelength.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That shared wavelength amounts to a hawkish foreign policy vision. Pompeo opposes the Iran nuclear deal, supports keeping Guantanamo Bay open, and he has said the U.S. will give no concessions to North Korea.

    The Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, says he needs to get to know Pompeo.

  • Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.:

    I have never really had much, if any dealings with him. I’m not sure we have even met.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    If he’s confirmed, Pompeo will also confront a troubled work force. Tillerson presided over efforts to cut almost a third of the State Department budget. In turn, the Foreign Service has lost 60 percent of its career ambassadors during the Trump administration.

    The ambassadorship to South Korea remains unfilled, and the ambassador to Mexico announced her resignation. Tillerson today claimed progress on North Korea, Syria and Iraq.

    At the CIA, the president’s choice to replace Pompeo, Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel, would become the first woman to lead the agency. She is certain to face tough questions at her confirmation hearing. In 2002, Haspel ran a secret so-called black site prison for terrorism suspects, and later destroyed evidence of water-boarding.

    Pompeo has also defended the CIA’s use of torture. His confirmation hearing will be held in April.

Editor’s Note: When this segment first aired we incorrectly identified a photograph as showing Gina Haspel, President Trump’s pick to lead the CIA. That photo has been corrected. We regret the error.

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