Tillerson was ousted barely four hours after he returned from an Africa mission and with no face-to-face conversation with the president, the latest casualty of an unruly White House that has seen multiple top officials depart in recent weeks. Citing the Iran nuclear deal and other issues, Trump said he and Tillerson were “not really thinking the same.”
Appearing in the State Department briefing room for likely the last time, Tillerson’s voice quavered as he described successes of his roughly one-year tenure: an economic pressure campaign on North Korea and a new Afghanistan plan.
“I will now return to private life, private citizen, a proud American, proud of the opportunity I’ve had to serve my country.”
He did not mention Trump — other than to say that he’d spoken by phone to the president Tuesday while Trump was on Air Force One.
He said he would delegate all authority to Deputy Secretary John Sullivan, who will serve as acting secretary until Pompeo is confirmed. Tillerson will remain secretary in name until March 31, when he formally resigns his commission.
In an illustration of the gulf that has long separated Tillerson and Trump, the White House and the State Department vigorously disagreed about whether Tillerson had even been informed of his firing in advance.
Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein and other State Department officials said Tuesday morning that Tillerson hadn’t learned he was dismissed until he saw Trump’s early-morning tweet, and hadn’t discussed it directly with Trump. Goldstein said the former Exxon Mobil CEO was “unaware of the reason” he was fired and “had had every intention of staying.”
Then Goldstein, hours after making those comments, was fired, too.
“I’m a big boy,” Goldstein told reporters later. Describing Tillerson’s mood, Goldstein said: “He’s accepting.”
Multiple White House officials said that Tillerson had been informed of the decision Friday, while he was in Ethiopia. One official said chief of staff John Kelly had called Tillerson on Friday and again on Saturday to warn him that Trump was about to take imminent action if he did not resign and that a replacement had already been identified. Tillerson canceled his entire schedule that Saturday in Ethiopia, with the State Department telling reporters he was sick.
When Tillerson didn’t step aside, Trump fired him, that official said.
All of the officials demanded anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.
Tillerson has pushed Trump to remain in the agreement and had been pursuing a delicate strategy with European allies and others to try to improve or augment it to Trump’s liking. The president mentioned differences over how to handle the Iran agreement, “so we were not really thinking the same.”
Tillerson’s departure adds to a period of intense turnover within Trump’s administration that has alarmed those both in and out of the White House. Top economic adviser Gary Cohn announced his resignation last week, not long after communications director Hope Hicks and staff secretary Rob Porter both departed near the start of Trump’s second year in office.