WASHINGTON — Hours after President Trump announced his firing over Twitter, outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday left the former real estate entrepreneur off the list of people he praised and thanked in a brief speech about his accomplishments and the future of his department.
Tillerson, looking and sounding defeated as he delivered an eight-minute farewell, said he was delegating his duties to Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, effective at the end of the day, and formally ending his own watch as the top U.S. diplomat at the end of the month.
The former Exxon chief told reporters in the State Department briefing room that Trump had telephoned him from Air Force One a little after noon — some five hours after the president announced to the world that Tillerson was out, to be replaced by CIA director Mike Pompeo.
He shared no details, and did not mention Trump again.
Tillerson’s dismissal continues a period of extraordinary turbulence for the administration, which has seen a record level of turnover among top staffers and Cabinet officials. It comes on the heels of the abrupt exit of Gary Cohn, who was Trump’s top economic adviser. Cohn resigned March 6.
The State Department released a statement from Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein, saying Tillerson “did not speak to the president and is unaware of the reason” for his dismissal.
“The Secretary had every intention of staying because of the critical progress made in national security,” the statement said.
Hours later, Goldstein was himself fired, evidently for contradicting the White House version of events. A senior Trump aide told reporters that White House chief of staff John Kelly telephoned Tillerson, who was traveling in Africa, on Friday to tell him he would be replaced. The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Kelly “made clear that it was imminent.” Kelly called Tillerson again on Saturday and “reiterated the Friday conversation,” said the aide, whose remarks suggested Trump hoped Tillerson would resign.
Tillerson cut short his Africa trip and was back in Washington by Monday.
Tillerson praised his top aides for being “extraordinarily dedicated” to advancing “values that I view as being very important: The safety and security of our State Department personnel; accountability, which means treating each other with honesty and integrity; and respect for one another, most recently, in particular, to address challenges of sexual harassment within the department.”
Tillerson praised U.S. diplomats in Washington and overseas, as well as the U.S. military. He said the Pentagon believes U.S. power “starts with diplomacy” and lauded the leadership of Defense Secretary James Mattis.
The 65-year-old former energy executive highlighted some of what he called “accomplishments under this administration.” He noted the ramped-up sanctions against North Korea, and the new Afghanistan war strategy, not mentioning Trump by name. And he acknowledged “much work remains” on issues like Syria, stabilizing Iraq, defeating ISIS and resetting the U.S. relationship with China.
“Nothing is possible without allies and partners, though,” said Tillerson, whose mission included selling a wary world on Trump’s “America First” approach to global affairs.
And he warned Moscow over its “troubling behavior,” saying: “Russia must assess carefully as to how its actions are in the best interests of the Russian people and of the world more broadly.”
Tillerson continued, “continuing on their current trajectory is likely to lead to greater isolation on their part, a situation which is not in anyone’s interest.”
Saying he would return to private life as a “proud American,” Tillerson concluded: “God bless all of you, God bless the American people, God bless America.”
There had been persistent tensions between Trump and Tillerson, fueled in part by a report last October that the secretary of state had called the president a “moron” in a Pentagon meeting. Tillerson never fully denied that report.
The pair also clashed on policy issues pertaining to Iran, North Korea and the blockade against Qatar. Just before Trump revealed his surprising decision earlier this month to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Tillerson had said it was not yet time to negotiate with Pyongyang. And on Monday, Tillerson struck a far different tone than the White House over the attempted assassination of a former spy now living in Britain, which British Prime Minister Theresa May blamed on Russia. Tillerson’s strong statement contrasted with the reluctance of the White House to blame Moscow.
When he spoke to reporters before boarding Marine One, Trump said he and Tillerson “were not really thinking the same way.” As an example, he cited the Iran nuclear deal, which he has denounced and Tillerson sought to fix. Trump said he and Pompeo are “always on the same wavelength.”
And, the president said, “I think Rex will be much happier now.”
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