U.S. President Donald Trump within the next several weeks could name Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, according to media reports quoting senior administration officials Thursday.
Several U.S. news outlets reported that the shakeup of Trump's top national security team has been under consideration for some time, although it was not clear that Trump has made a decision.
In a brief exchange with reporters at the White House, Trump, when asked about Tillerson's fate, said, “He’s here. Rex is here.” The president made no other comments.
The White House downplayed the reports of Tillerson's departure. The State Department did not immediately respond to a VOA request for comment.
“As the president just said, ‘Rex is here.’ White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. "There are no personnel announcements at this time. 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.”
Reports say under the plan, Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a staunch ally of Trump on national security issues, would replace Pompeo as CIA chief.
Tillerson's departure from the State Department would end a troubled tenure for the former ExxonMobil chief executive, who has clashed with Trump over dealing with the nuclear threat posed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Thomas Wright told VOA, “The secretary of state is only influential if he is perceived as close to the president. Now that the White House has told multiple media outlets it intends to replace Rex Tillerson, he has been stripped of any power he enjoyed.”
Praise for Pompeo, Tillerson
James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation said he did not want to speculate about any Cabinet shakeup, and that the administration had been honest and upfront about policy differences. Carafano told VOA both men were serving the country well in their present jobs.
“Pompeo has done a great job at the intelligence agency. He has brought some real needed leadership there. He has been very effective,” Carafano said. “I think Tillerson has been an effective part of the policymaking team. I think he has done a lot of personal diplomacy around the world, representing the government pretty well.”
Tillerson has given no indication he plans to resign, saying in early October, "There has never been a consideration in my mind to leave. I serve at the appointment of the president and I am here for as long as the president feels I can be useful to achieving his objectives.”
Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he spoke with Tillerson on Thursday. "He's conducting business, as is the norm, and is unaware of anything changing,” Corker told reporters.
Trump routinely has disparaged North Korea's Kim as "Little Rocket Man" and has threatened to unleash U.S. military power on North Korea if it attacks the U.S. or its allies. Months ago, Trump told Tillerson in a Twitter comment to stop wasting his time trying to negotiate with the Pyongyang dictator.
"Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!" Trump said.
At one point, Tillerson, 65, was quoted as calling Trump a "moron" after a Pentagon meeting.
He did not deny making the disparaging assessment of the U.S. leader's intellect, instead deflecting questions about the story and saying it was part of Washington political games. “I’m not going to deal with that petty stuff," he said.
Pompeo, 53, a former three-term congressman from the Midwestern state of Kansas, apparently has won Trump's favor while giving him the CIA's daily intelligence briefings in person at the White House, rather than delegating that responsibility to a staff aide.
Cotton is a staunchly conservative lawmaker who has often voiced support for Trump's policies. He has signaled that he would take the job as CIA director if Trump offered it.
Rights activists' reactions
Human rights groups on Thursday expressed concern about the possible appointment of Pompeo and Cotton to the State Department and CIA, respectively.
“If they are confirmed, Pompeo and Cotton will be charged with making decisions that could affect the human rights of people around the world,” Amnesty International Executive Director Margaret Huang said in statement. “Both have been proponents of torture and indefinite detention in the past, and must undergo aggressive scrutiny by the Senate before they can be allowed to assume such critically important positions in the U.S. government.”
Human Rights First’s Rob Berschinski welcomed a change in leadership at the State Department and said anyone who succeeds Tillerson should “immediately halt the destructive policies that have laid waste to morale at the State Department,” with lawmakers treating the confirmation process as a matter of “war and peace.”
“The United States can ill afford a replay of the ideologically driven decision-making that led us into disaster in Iraq,” Berschinski said in a statement. “The American people deserve a top diplomat invested in diplomacy, not in downplaying the costs of war with Iran or North Korea."