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A Major Shakeup In The Trump Administration: How Did It Come About?

Mar 13, 2018
Originally published on March 16, 2018 11:46 am
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A major shake-up this morning in the Trump administration, announced - you guessed it - on Twitter. The president announced in a tweet that he is replacing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He wants CIA Director Mike Pompeo now in that job. And the current No. 2 at the CIA, Gina Haspel, will become that agency's new director, the first woman in that role. All this comes after months of tense relations between Tillerson and Trump. Before leaving for California this morning, the president predicted a better relationship with his new secretary of state.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I've worked with Mike Pompeo now for quite some time. Tremendous energy, tremendous intellect. We're always on the same wavelength. The relationship has been very good, and that's what I need as secretary of state.

GREENE: All right. Let's turn now to NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley, who's with us. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, David.

GREENE: Tell us more about how this announcement came about.

HORSLEY: Well, you know, for a guy whose TV catchphrase was you're fired, President Trump does not actually like firing people in person. You'll recall that FBI director James Comey learned that he'd been dismissed from a TV crawl while he was giving a speech out in California.

GREENE: Right.

HORSLEY: So we understand from the State Department that Secretary Tillerson did not speak to the president this morning. He was unaware of the reason for his dismissal, which was communicated to him and the rest of the world via Twitter.

GREENE: Well, what a moment. I mean, this is not the quietest time in U.S. diplomacy. We have, I mean, all the anticipation for this meeting with the leader of North Korea, among many other things.

HORSLEY: That's right. You know, this is definitely a high wire moment in U.S. diplomacy. In the space of just a few hours last Thursday, the president launched the opening salvo of what could be an international trade war. And then he upended decades of diplomatic policy by making the surprise announcement that he would in fact accept an invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Secretary Tillerson was traveling in Africa at the time, and was caught flat-footed about the North Korea news. Just a day earlier, he had told reporters that negotiations with North Korea were a long way's off. He tried to sort of paper over that difference by drawing a distinction between talks and negotiations. But it was just emblematic of the sort of disconnect between Secretary of State Tillerson and the president. The White House says Trump wanted to make this change and have a new team in place before the North Korean talks and before the trade talks that are now underway.

GREENE: Well, you point to the lack of connection between these two men, and you hear the president this morning as he was getting ready to leave for California saying he's worked with Mike Pompeo, they're always on the same wavelength, that's what he needs as a secretary of state. Is he basically saying that he and Tillerson were just on totally different wavelengths?

HORSLEY: They were very much on different wavelengths, both on matters of policy, like the wisdom of the Iran nuclear deal or pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accord, but also just sort of on style and personality. Remember, Rex Tillerson was famously reported to have called the president a moron and pointedly did not deny making that statement.

GREENE: Neither confirmed nor denied, which was very telling.

HORSLEY: They clearly had their differences. And Mike Pompeo is perhaps more simpatico with the president.

GREENE: And I guess one of the big questions is, will the foreign policy of this administration change in some dramatic way with someone else as the nation's top diplomat?

HORSLEY: We'll certainly be watching for that. Mike Pompeo is certainly no moron. Top of his class at West Point, Harvard Law graduate, served in the House of Representatives. But he doesn't have any diplomatic experience so it'll be an interesting role for him if he's confirmed by the Senate.

GREENE: Well, we're going to spend a lot more time talking about Pompeo and what maybe to expect. But let me just ask you before we do that about his deputy, who the president is tapping to run the CIA, Gina Haspel, first woman, potentially, to run that agency.

HORSLEY: That's right. And that's obviously a milestone. Gina Haspel is a CIA veteran. She has decades of experience at the spy agency. Not all of that experience is without controversy. She had a role to play in some of the harsh interrogation tactics that were used during the George W. Bush administration, tactics that were controversial. There were Democrats that raised questions about that when she was tapped to be No. 2 at the CIA about a year ago. That position was not subject to Senate confirmation. The new post for which she has been nominated is subject to confirmation by the Senate, and I'm sure we will hear more about Gina Haspel's past, both historic as a pioneering woman and controversy during those Senate confirmation hearings.

GREENE: All right. Scott, I'm going to turn things over to Rachel here. That's NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. We appreciate it, Scott.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.