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Tillerson Blindsided, Fired by Trump as US Top Diplomat


U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson boards his plane to depart at the end of a five-country swing through Africa from Abuja, Nigeria, March 12, 2018.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo came as a surprise to the top diplomat.

"The secretary did not speak to the president and is unaware of the reason, but he is grateful for the opportunity to serve," said Under Secretary of State Steve Goldstein in a statement Tuesday. "The secretary had every intention of staying because of the critical progress made in national security."

Shortly after releasing that statement, Goldstein was also fired by the White House.

The rapidly announced departures came just hours after Tillerson returned from a weeklong trip to five African nations.

His departure was officially announced by the president on Twitter. "Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!"

No imminent indication of firing

In the days leading up to his firing, Tillerson showed no outward signs that his days in the administration were numbered.

A senior administration official told VOA on Tuesday that Tillerson was informed of his ouster last week.

The official, speaking on background, said Tillerson was told by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly last Friday that he was being removed from the Cabinet by the president. The official said Kelly "followed up" with another phone call Saturday.

However, that account contradicts other reporting, which said Kelly never explicitly told Tillerson he was being fired. The Associated Press reported that Kelly warned Tillerson that Trump might tweet something that would concern him, but was not told what the tweet might say.

Tillerson told reporters traveling with him at the time that he did get a late-night phone call, but did not elaborate.

"I got another call at 2:30 [a.m.] that woke me up. I can’t say. And so I was up most of that night. And that was Friday night," Tillerson later told reporters.

Just two days later, dressed in sneakers and khakis, Tillerson appeared relaxed and enjoyed a tour at Kenya Wildlife Service Genetics and Molecular Forensics Laboratory, chatting with experts working at the lab, as well as prominent conservationist Dr. Richard Leakey.

On Monday, during a rare on-the-record briefing with seven members of the traveling press en route to Cape Verde, Tillerson appeared to be at ease, occasionally smiling while answering questions. Later, at a refueling stop in Cape Verde, he again seemed relaxed, with VOA hearing his signature loud laughter while talking to staff members.

And during a joint press conference with Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama in Abuja earlier Monday, his last public event in Africa before Trump's tweet announcing his replacement, Tillerson appeared fully invested, showing no outward signs that he would soon be leaving his position.

Trump, Tillerson and diplomacy

It's no secret that Trump and Tillerson did not see eye to eye on several key issues, including how to deal with the nuclear and missile threat from North Korea.

The then-secretary of state was halfway across the world and reportedly asleep when news broke that Trump had accepted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's invitation for direct talks Thursday, a major diplomatic development that Tillerson was said to be kept out of the loop on.

"I got the call a little before 2:30 [a.m.] on Thursday night about the decision and had a conversation with the president and then I was on the phone the rest of the night," Tillerson said.

Nigeria's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Permanent Secretary Olukunle Bamgbose walks with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as he arrives in Abuja, Nigeria, March 12, 2018.
Nigeria's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Permanent Secretary Olukunle Bamgbose walks with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as he arrives in Abuja, Nigeria, March 12, 2018.

Tillerson canceled his schedule in Nairobi, Kenya, on Saturday because he was under the weather due to sleep deprivation and what he said was "a little stomach bug" as a result of something he ate in Ethiopia.

"I’ve been up most nights on the telephone. I think I had 4 hours of sleep in 72 hours because of a lot of what’s going on," Tillerson told traveling press on the plane.

A senior White House official, commenting on the timing of Tillerson's departure Tuesday, explained, "the president wanted to make sure to have his new team in place in advance of the upcoming talks with North Korea and various ongoing trade negotiations."

The Trump administration moved fast to replace Goldstein with spokesperson Heather Nauert, named acting Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in a White House statement.

VOA's Steve Herman contributed to this report.