White House plans to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state within weeks
Officials say Tillerson will be replaced by CIA director Mike Pompeo
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s expected exit from the Trump administration is one of many staff changes likely as President Donald Trump nears the end of his first year in office, with analysts saying the move could prompt a more hardline approach to Sino-US relations.
Trump is considering a plan to remove Tillerson, whose relationship has been strained by the top US diplomat’s softer line on North Korea and other differences, senior administration officials said.
The New York Times on Thursday reported the plan, with Tillerson expected to be replaced by CIA director Mike Pompeo within weeks.
Observers said the departure of the “relatively moderate” Tillerson would not fundamentally change Sino-US relations, but it could pave the way for a more hardline approach to China, particularly when it comes to addressing North Korean nuclearisation.
Pompeo is widely considered a more aggressive Trump loyalist and Wei Zongyou, an expert on Sino-US relations at Fudan University, said his position on many foreign policy issues is consistent with the president’s.
“If he becomes secretary of state, US foreign policy’s tough stances will be even stronger, including towards North Korea,” he said. “It may also be tougher on China.”
Shi Yinhong, international relations professor at Renmin University, said it is unlikely Pompeo’s appointment will affect the Sino-US relationship, but it could render Trump’s foreign diplomacy efforts even less effective.
“Indirectly, of course, a rougher and even less sophisticated policy on North Korea and Iran under Trump with Pompeo would broaden further disagreement between China and US,” he said.
A State Department spokeswoman said Tillerson’s chief of staff had been told by the White House that the reports of Tillerson being replaced were not true.
Tillerson’s departure would end a troubled tenure for the former ExxonMobil chief executive who has spent much of his time trying to smooth the rough edges of Trump’s unilateralist “America First” foreign policy, with limited success.
He was reported in October to have privately called Trump a “moron”, which the secretary of state sought to dismiss. That followed a tweet by Trump a few days earlier that Tillerson should not waste his time by seeking diplomatic engagement with North Korea. And when Tillerson in June called on Arab nations to ease their blockade on Qatar, Trump emerged hours later to lambast Qatar for funding terrorism.
Tillerson’s advice to Trump to stay in the Paris climate deal and certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal was also overruled.
According to Du Lan, from the China Institute of International Studies, recent months have seen the United States’ top diplomat increasingly marginalised in Trump’s administration, as foreign policy hawks with military backgrounds such as Defence Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster have found stronger voices.
“If the similarly hawkish Pompeo is the replacement, the diplomatic team may be more coordinated and smooth, with a more consistent policy,” she said. “Time will tell.”
Meanwhile, White House sources said top economic adviser Gary Cohn and son-in-law Jared Kushner could also be among those who depart the Trump administration.
Cohn, whose relationship with Trump became tense earlier this year – when he criticised Trump’s response to the violence at a white supremacist rally in Virginia in August – has considered leaving once the Republican effort to overhaul the US tax system is completed in Congress, according to the sources with ties to the White House who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Kushner, who has seen his influence in the White House shrink, may receive a “face-saving” exit as he deals with legal challenges related to a special counsel’s investigation of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign’s potential ties to Russia, one of the sources said.
White House spokesman Raj Shah dismissed suggestions of the potential staff moves as “pure speculation” in an emailed statement. But others said the shake-up was expected.
“It may be February, it may be March, it may be April, but I think once you get to that time period, people are going to feel as though they’ve kind of put their time in,” said one person with close ties to the White House.
“You’re definitely going to see some people leave after tax cuts get done,” said a separate Trump adviser, who requested anonymity to speak freely about the administration.
Additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press