Hours before President Donald Trump agreed to meet with Kim Jong Un, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters the US was “a long way” from direct talks with North Korea.
It was just the latest episode of public dissonance between the President and his secretary of state on the thorniest and most significant foreign policy issue facing the US. It would also be the last.
The next day, Tillerson was roused from his sleep in a Nairobi, Kenya, hotel room by a call from White House chief of staff John Kelly, who told the former Exxon CEO that his time as the US’ top diplomat was up, three administration officials said. Two people familiar with the matter said the North Korea issue was the biggest factor in the decision, as Trump and Tillerson have clashed over the US approach for months.
Four days later, the White House made the latest high-profile administration departure official, announcing Tillerson’s ouster in a move that officials said is likely only a prelude to more shake-up in the administration’s upper echelons in the coming weeks.
The suddenness of Tuesday morning’s announcement caught most of Washington by surprise, but the move had been anticipated for months as the discord between the President and his secretary of state swelled and repeatedly broke into public view. Their disagreements were often as much about substance as style, but their relationship sunk to its lowest point last fall amid a report that Tillerson privately called Trump a “moron” — one Tillerson refused to publicly refute.
Talk of Tillerson’s impending exit reached a peak in late November, when the White House’s early plans to replace Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo became public. It took another three-and-a-half months to become a reality.
But when it finally did, Tillerson and his team were left stunned by the White House announcement, insisting Tuesday morning — just hours after returning from a trip to Africa — that they had no indication that the long-rumored “Rexit” was imminent.
“The secretary had every intention of staying, because of critical progress made in national security,” Steve Goldstein, the State Department’s undersecretary for public diplomacy said in a statement. “The secretary did not speak to the President and is unaware of the reason.”
Goldstein later confirmed to CNN that Kelly had called Tillerson to inform him of the planned shake-up, but there was no indication that the move would take place Tuesday morning. Tillerson’s pink slip came via tweet, Goldstein said, hours before receiving his own pink slip — this time, directly from the White House.
The timing of the announcement also came as a surprise to White House aides, even those who had been informed days earlier of the imminent shake-up, two sources familiar with the plans said. As of Monday evening, aides had no indication the story would drop the following morning.
For Trump, the ouster was a long time coming, a product of the policy disagreements he has had with his secretary of state throughout Tillerson’s 13-month tenure.
“Rex and I have been talking about this for a long time. We got along actually quite well, but we disagreed on things,” Trump said. “We were not really thinking the same.”
Publicly, Trump and Tillerson have struck different notes on North Korea more than any other issue, with Trump publicly undercutting his secretary of state in October when Tillerson suggested diplomacy was afoot and instead leaning heavily into his “fire and fury” rhetoric. The two also struck different tones publicly on an early diplomatic crisis the administration faced when Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries sought to isolate Qatar.
Privately, the two men also disagreed on how the US should approach the Iran deal, the war in Afghanistan, trade policy, the US’s embassy in Israel — and more — multiple sources said.
Tillerson’s awkward public contradiction of Trump’s decision to agree to talks with North Korea, just hours earlier, was not the only public disharmony between Trump and his secretary of state in the days before his firing. In a statement Monday, Tillerson went further than the White House in blaming Russia for the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy on British soil.
“We have full confidence in the UK’s investigation and its assessment that Russia was likely responsible for the nerve agent attack,” Tillerson said in the statement, hours after the White House press secretary declined to back that assessment.
Trump’s surprise Tuesday morning announcement capped off a series of bizarre days that in retrospect offered indications that Tillerson’s future in the administration was shaky at best.
Hours after Tillerson was roused at about 2:30 a.m. Saturday local time in Nairobi, the State Department announced that Tillerson would not be carrying on with his schedule for the day, saying the secretary of state was not feeling well.
Two days later, Tillerson cut his trip short, with his spokesman explaining Tillerson needed to return to Washington urgently for in-person meetings.
But pressed about the shortened trip as he flew westward toward the US, Tillerson didn’t cite the need for urgent meetings. Instead, he again pointed to his illness, the lack of sleep over the past few days and phone calls he had received in the middle of the night.
“The next night I got another call at 2:30 that woke me up. I can’t say. And so I was up most of that night. And that was Friday night,” Tillerson explained, referring to a call officials later confirmed was with Kelly. “And then last night I only got about three hours of sleep. And so I just, I felt like, look, I just need to get back.”
But on the same flight, Tillerson also appeared to indicate that he still envisioned a future for himself in the administration.
Asked about the North Korea talks, Tillerson said he was in the midst of helping to coordinate US government efforts ahead of the high-level talks and working to prepare the President.
But that wasn’t all. Tillerson was also looking to a task that still lay months ahead, one he appeared to hope the President would need him to partake in.
“I have a lot of confidence in my ability to create the conditions for successful negotiations between two very disparate parties,” Tillerson said. “But I’m not the only guy working on this. Others are working on this as well.”
Tillerson did not hear from Trump until three hours after news of his firing broke, a call Tillerson briefly mentioned as he delivered parting remarks at the State Department on Tuesday afternoon. He didn’t mention Trump’s name once.