RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Rex Tillerson is out as secretary of state. The surprise cabinet change was announced on Twitter by the president himself who wrote as follows, (reading) 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!
We will get into all of these staffing changes with NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, who joins us from the White House.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.
MARTIN: So this had long been speculated that Rex Tillerson might be on the outs. Now it has happened. What do we know about his dismissal? Was it a dismissal or did he leave of his own accord?
KEITH: It has so long been speculated that he was on his way out that we began to think that maybe he was going to outlast everybody after all. But no. According to a senior White House official, the president wanted to make sure he had a new team in place in advance of upcoming talks with North Korea and various ongoing trade negotiations. Tillerson had been on this trip around the African continent and cut it short to return home, saying there were pressing matters back in Washington. It seems like he may have rushed home to be fired.
MARTIN: So let's just recount some of the tense moments, shall we say, between the president and his secretary of state. The president actually mocked him for wanting to try diplomacy when it came to North Korea when the president was using all this bellicose language. And it was actually reported that at some point in the past year - I believe it was last summer. Correct me if I'm wrong. Tillerson actually said behind closed doors - he called the president a moron. So clearly, these two have had a difficult relationship during this first year.
KEITH: Yeah. And it wasn't just moron. It was expletive moron.
KEITH: ...According to the reports, which we have not ourselves been able to confirm, in which Rex Tillerson always gave a nondenial denial. But President Trump said that he continued even after that report came out to have confidence in his secretary of state. But Tillerson was always sort of this long-suffering figure in the Trump administration, someone who was secretary of state but had to compete with other people like the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner and the ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley who both were positioning themselves as secretary of state, at least on some matters.
MARTIN: And Tillerson didn't have a close relationship - he didn't even know Donald Trump before...
MARTIN: ...He was asked to serve.
KEITH: Tillerson was originally recommended by a bunch of different people, including Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state. And the president didn't know him. But he was a business guy, and so there was some thought that, you know, these two business guys could get along. But they were very different types of businesspeople. And President Trump on, like, so many occasions ended up basically contradicting his secretary of state. And then his secretary of state on various occasions contradicted the president of the United States. Just to give you a couple of examples of that - right before President Trump agreed to meet with the North Korean leader, Tillerson said, well, we're nowhere near negotiations. Then they had to sort of smooth out, oh, well, Tillerson meant negotiations; President Trump is only talking about talking.
KEITH: And then just as recently as yesterday, the White House did not say that Russia was involved in this poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain, which came in contrast to what the British prime minister had said. Well, out on his trip, Rex Tillerson speaking to reporters said that it was pretty clearly Russia.
MARTIN: So it's also worth noting that Rex Tillerson leaves a State Department that has a whole lot of vacancies. And in the beginning, at least, it wasn't Tillerson fault. He wanted to hire some people the president wouldn't let him hire because they had been critical of Donald Trump in the campaign - Elliott Abrams for one. For - Tillerson had wanted him for a top job. So the president was, you know, cutting Tillerson off at the knees even before he really got a chance to get going.
KEITH: That is very much the case. And the reality is that throughout the government, if you have criticized President Trump in the past or in the present, you're not long for this administration or you just won't get a job.
MARTIN: Right. OK. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith for us this morning on this breaking news. Thanks, Tam.
KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.