The White House that routinely labels as fake any news it does not like is studiously withholding such phraseology when it comes to media reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is a short-timer.
White House officials have developed plans to replace the long-embattled Tillerson, who fell out of favor with the president months ago, with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, according to The New York Times. Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton would move into Pompeo’s position, the news outlet reported, citing senior administration officials.
During her daily press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not dispute the Times report. Nor did her top deputy, Raj Shah, in an earlier email sent by Roll Call asking if the White House views the story as inaccurate.
If Tillerson has lost the confidence of the president, he would be fired, Sanders told reporters. Still, she would only discuss Tillerson’s “future right now,” which she said is working with Trump on closing out a “strong and positive year.” (Pressed on that, she advised to not read too much into that — pointing out that she and the reporters in the room also are closing out the calendar year, which she noted was established “many centuries ago.”)
Still, her usage only of the remaining four-and-a-half weeks of 2017 did not seem an accident. That’s because the Times reported White House Chief of Staff John Kelley developed the Tillerson replacement plan to be implemented around the year’s end.
“When the president loses confidence in someone,” Sanders said, “they will no longer serve in that capacity.”
Several Democratic senators who closely monitor foreign policy and national security issues responded with criticism and shock to the report Tillerson’s fate. The country’s top diplomat has been “undermined” and may be even less able to do his job effectively, they warned Thursday.
“The president seems to take step after step to undercut diplomacy, tweeting out negative things about the secretary’s efforts to do diplomacy,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee that would oversee confirmation hearings for any secretary of State nominee.
“I think this would be widely perceived as more instability in the diplomatic space, which would be a bad thing,” the Virginia Democrat said.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said she is “just so astounded that the most important diplomat in the world has been so publicly undermined at a critical juncture in terms of hotspots around the world and his ability to communicate with other world leaders — he’s had the entire rug pulled out from under him.”
McCaskill contended that the White House “clearly” leaked the ouster plan to the newspaper, assessing the the Trump team this way: “It is really the Keystone Cops.”
“I don’t understand why you would put that out there and undermine our sitting secretary of State. He is now going forward completely ineffective,” she said. “If you’re going to do that, you’ve got to just do it. … Does [Trump] not want to fire him? Is he afraid to fire [Tillerson]? Here’s a guy who made a lot of money saying, ‘You’re fired.’ If he’s firing him, he should fire him and immediately put somebody else in.”
Senate Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois was informed of the reported shakeup plan by a Roll Call reporter.
He declined to comment, saying he needed to first read the New York Times article. But not before he stopped abruptly while walking down a Dirksen Office Building hallway. He bent forward and rested his hands on his knees for a few seconds, his eyes grew large with his mouth agape as he contemplated the potential moves with a shake of his head.
At Foggy Bottom, spokesperson Heather Nauert stressed that business was going on as usual, with Tillerson engaged in many meetings today and planning for his trip to Europe next week.
She pointed to an earlier White House statement that no personnel changes were being announced today, and that Tillerson had spoken to Kelly this morning, who allegedly said the report is not true.
“The secretary is someone whose feathers don’t get ruffled easily,” Nauert said. “He’s heard the stories before; he’s going on about his business...He remains the secretary of State and as long as he serves at the pleasure of the president, he will continue to do his job.”
Earlier Thursday, Trump did not dispute the report when reporters were briefly allowed into the Oval Office during a meeting with the crown prince of Bahrain.
“He’s here,” Trump said. “Rex is here.”
Later, Sanders said Tillerson participated in a meeting with the president and crown prince.
Patrick B. Pexton contributed.