White House crafted plan to replace Tillerson as secretary of state, source says

The Trump-Tillerson relationship has been the subject of monthslong speculation

ByABC News
November 30, 2017, 3:47 PM

— -- The White House developed a plan in recent months to remove Secretary of State Rex Tillerson from his post and replace him with current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, a source confirmed to ABC News on Thursday.

The New York Times first reported that Tillerson's ouster, spearheaded by White House chief of staff John Kelly, was being planned for sometime in the coming weeks, to allow for Pompeo's elevation and the subsequent nomination of Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., to lead the CIA.

The report was later confirmed to ABC News by a senior White House official.

President Trump did not provide a direct answer when asked by ABC News if he wanted Tillerson to remain in his post

"He's here. Rex is here," Trump answered from the Oval Office, where he was meeting with the crown prince of Bahrain.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders pushed back against the suggestion that a change was forthcoming, quoting Trump's comment in a statement and adding, "There are no personnel announcements at this time."

"Secretary Tillerson continues to lead the State Department, and the entire Cabinet is focused on completing this incredibly successful first year of President Trump's administration," Sanders said.

At Thursday's White House press briefing, Sanders responded to questions about the president's "confidence" in Tillerson by noting that "when the president loses confidence in someone they will no longer serve in the capacity that they are in."

State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a press briefing that Kelly called the department Thursday morning to say that "the rumors are not true — those reports are not true."

"That is what I've been told. That's what we've been told," she said. "And you heard from the White House today that they have no personnel changes to announce."

The news of the White House's interest in replacing Tillerson comes after months of reports of tensions between him and Trump.

In October the State Department publicly denied a claim, first reported by NBC News, that Tillerson called Trump a "moron" at a meeting over the summer with national security advisers. The incident led to the development of the succession plan revealed Thursday, the source told ABC News.

In an interview with Forbes magazine days after that report, Trump expressed doubts that Tillerson made the comment but said that if it was true, they would "have to compare IQ tests."

"And I can tell you who is going to win," Trump added.

In October, he wrote on Twitter that Tillerson was "wasting his time" pursing diplomatic negotiations with North Korea. Trump suggested, "Save your energy."

Pompeo, a former member of the House of Representatives from Kansas, has led the CIA since January. At Trump's request, Pompeo gives the president his daily intelligence briefings instead of sending other briefers from CIA headquarters.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Cotton did not address the report Tuesday, saying only that "Sen. Cotton's focus is on serving Arkansans in the Senate."

ABC News' Conor Finnegan and Cecilia Vega contributed to this report.

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