The White House has developed a plan to force out Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, whose relationship with President Donald Trump has been strained, and replace him with Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, perhaps within the next several weeks, senior administration officials said Thursday.
Pompeo would be replaced at the CIA by Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas who has been a key ally of the president on national security matters, according to the White House plan. Cotton has signaled that he would accept the job if offered, said the officials, who insisted on anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations before decisions are announced.
It was not immediately clear whether Trump has given final approval to the plan, but he has been said to have soured on Tillerson and in general is ready to make a change at the State Department.
John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, developed the transition plan and has discussed it with other officials.
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Under his plan, the shake-up of the national security team would happen around the end of the year or shortly afterward. But for all of his public combativeness, Trump is notoriously reluctant to fire people, and it was not known if Tillerson had agreed to step down by then. Public disclosure of Kelly’s transition plan may be meant as a signal to the secretary that it is time to go.
At the same time, there was some concern in the White House about the appearance of a rush to the exits given that other senior officials may also leave in the early part of the new year. White House officials were debating whether it would be better to spread out any departures or just get them over with all at once.
The ouster of Tillerson would end a turbulent reign at the State Department for the former Exxon Mobil chief executive, who has been largely marginalized over the past year. Trump and Tillerson have been at odds over a host of major issues, including the Iran nuclear deal, the confrontation with North Korea and a clash between Arab allies. The secretary was reported to have privately called Trump a “moron,” and the president publicly criticized Tillerson for “wasting his time” with a diplomatic outreach to North Korea.
Tillerson’s departure has been widely anticipated for months, but associates have said he was intent on finishing out the year to retain whatever dignity he could. Even so, an end-of-year exit would make his time in office the shortest of any secretary of state whose tenure was not ended by a change in presidents in nearly 120 years.
While some administration officials initially expected him to be replaced by Nikki R. Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations, Pompeo has become the White House favorite.
Pompeo, a former three-term member of Congress, has impressed Trump during daily intelligence briefings and become a trusted policy adviser even on issues far beyond the CIA’s normal mandate, like health care. But he has been criticized by intelligence officers for being too political in his job.
Cotton has been perhaps Trump’s most important supporter in the Senate on national security and immigration and a valued outside adviser. Officials cautioned that there was still a debate about whether Cotton was more valuable to the president in the Senate than in taking over the spy agency in Langley, Virginia, but he is the consensus choice at the moment.
Under Arkansas state law, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, would appoint a replacement who could serve until the 2018 election. That could put another seat in play during a midterm election when Republicans, with 52 of 100 seats in the Senate, cannot afford to take too many chances. If Cotton stayed in the Senate, his seat would not be up for election again until 2020.
Asked about a possible move, Caroline Rabbitt Tabler, a spokeswoman for Cotton, said, “Senator Cotton’s focus is on serving Arkansans in the Senate.”
Tillerson’s appointment was something of an experiment from the start. Never before had a president named a secretary of state with no prior experience in government, politics or the military. Trump, who himself had no government or military experience before this year, bet that Tillerson would be able to translate his formidable skills in the corporate world to international diplomacy after 41 years at Exxon Mobil.
But Tillerson has often been on a different page than Trump, and he has spent much of his time reorganizing the State Department, slashing its budget and pushing out more than 2,000 career diplomats. Even on that he ran into serious troubles. Just this week, the counselor he brought in to execute his plan quit after just three months.
A sign of his fading fortunes in the White House has been the changing views of Kelly. Once a defender of Tillerson, Kelly is described by colleagues as now having mixed opinions, seeing him as a wounded figure who may no longer be able to be as effective as the president needs his secretary to be.