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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Tillerson’s state department future in doubt as speculation over successor grows

Media reports suggest several candidates being considered to replace US secretary of state

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson listens as president Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House on October 16, 2017. Saul Loeb / AFP
US secretary of state Rex Tillerson listens as president Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House on October 16, 2017. Saul Loeb / AFP

It is not every day that a US secretary of state goes on national TV to deny that he is being “castrated” or had called the president “a moron”. So Rex Tillerson’s latest media appearances, and his policy differences with Donald Trump, have increased the buzz in Washington about his departure and possible replacements.

"I checked. I'm fully intact," Mr Tillerson told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday in response to a leading Republican senator's comment that Mr Trump “cannot publicly castrate” his secretary of state.

But again on Monday, reports in US media indicated that Mr Tillerson’s tenure at the state department may be approaching its end, and that the former chief executive of Exxon is likely to head back to his retirement home in Texas.

The news website Axios, which was first to report on Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, is now reporting that the musical chairs inside the Trump administration is centred around replacing Mr Tillerson. This would entail “sliding CIA director Mike Pompeo over” to be the new secretary of state, and then nominating Republican senator Tom Cotton to be CIA director. Another scenario that is being considered, according to two sources close to the administration who spoke to The National, would bring in US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley as new secretary of state and send deputy national security adviser Dina Habib Powell to New York to replace to Ms Haley.

The appointment of either Mr Pompeo or Ms Haley would bring someone more aligned with White House foreign policy views to the state department. Mr Trump and Mr Tillerson have had public differences on the US approach to North Korea, the Qatar dispute, the Iran deal, the Paris agreement and trade with Mexico. Just last Friday, Mr Tillerson told reporters that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard would not be designated in its entirety, only to be contradicted by the US president later.

Mr Tillerson also told CNN that the US was trying to stay in the nuclear deal, while Mr Trump said on Monday that walking away might be “more likely". These differences are more acute on North Korea, where the US secretary of state floated the idea of a diplomatic channel with Pyongyang only to be chided by Mr Trump on Twitter that he was “wasting his time”.

It is not clear when Mr Tillerson's exit might come. One source expected him to complete the year and leave the position in early 2018 to save face, especially after the NBC report that he threatened to resign last summer, and to give the administration time to fill another vacancy at the health and human services department, as well as confirm its nominee for the department of homeland security, Kirstjen Nielsen.

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Read more:

Tillerson, Trump and the collapse of America's standing and credibility

What the Tillerson-Trump tensions mean for the Middle East

Tillerson has no intention to resign but refuses to deny Trump insult

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