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Trump Fires Secretary Of State Rex Tillerson; Mike Pompeo Appointed New Secretary Of State. Aired 9-9:30a ET
Aired March 13, 2018 - 09:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Never a dull morning.
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ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: There is major breaking news this morning from the Trump administration. Just moments ago the president announced that Rex Tillerson is out as secretary of State. Ousted would be more accurate here, to be replaced by the current head of the CIA Mike Pompeo. The president says that Gina Haspel, who is currently the deputy director of the CIA, will succeed him as director.
All of this is assuming Senate confirmation and there might be some issues there which we'll get into in just a moment.
So much happening over just the last few minutes. CNN's Abby Phillip at the White House.
We understand, Abby, that the secretary of State was informed of this on Friday.
ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. Tillerson was informed while he was traveling in Africa according to sources. He was told by the president that the president wanted him gone. And that coincided around the same time that we were learning that there were going to be negotiations, potentially a meeting with North Korea. A senior administration official telling CNN's Boris Sanchez that the president felt like with the North Korean negotiations on the horizon it was a good time for a transition.
Now this Tillerson departure is something that we have been waiting for and perhaps expecting for several weeks now. Tillerson had told people that he might be only staying in the administration for about a year, and we were coming well up on that timeline. And beyond that we know that there were persistent tensions between the president and his secretary of State. They did not see eye-to-eye on a lot of issues both on temperament and on policy.
And Tillerson even as recently as the last 24 hours was contradicting the White House when it comes to the issue of Russia. So we're seeing the president replace him with Mike Pompeo, the current CIA director, someone who has been -- we know has briefed the president in person virtually every day, in part because the president likes the way he's briefed by Pompeo. There's a lot of trust in that relationship. And in turn, Pompeo also has a lot of respect on the Hill.
I think this partnership between the president and Pompeo is one that has only grown in the last several months. And so it seems very much a natural transition here. The president also announcing that he's going to be promoting the current deputy director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, to succeed Pompeo over there. She is a 30-year veteran of the CIA and is someone who's been in that building for quite some time.
There are some reports about her time as a clandestine agent in that agency during the Bush administration when she was part of the sort of -- the torture programs that existed at that time. So it will be an interesting confirmation hearing for her, of course. But this is as close to an orderly transition as I think we will get here in this White House. Pompeo moving over from the CIA and the president moving someone up from already within the ranks of that agency -- John.
BERMAN: All right. Abby Phillip, stand by. I'm sure we will have much more to discuss.
I'm joined now by CNN diplomatic and military analyst, retired Rear Admiral John Kirby, a former State Department spokesman among other things.
You know, Admiral Kirby, to you, this comes 24 hours after the secretary of State made a statement directly in opposition to what the White House was saying. This is in response to the British -- to the British prime minister condemning Russia for poisoning a spy on British grounds. The White House would not go as far as to say Russia did it. Rex Tillerson said, "We're outraged that Russia appears to have engaged in such behavior," and now he's out.
REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yes. Right. And now we know that he knew he was being fired on Friday. So he felt probably less encumbered to be anything less other than completely honest about what we know Russia's role was here in this attack in Great Britain.
But as Abby said, this is a longtime coming. So he probably felt free to speak a little bit more since he knew he was getting fired. Now we know why he cut his trip short. They said it was to return for urgent business. Obviously this is the urgent business. But this is a relationship that has been fraught with difficulty since almost the very beginning.
And what I found really interesting about Abby's opening there with you, John, the bit about North Korea. It seems to me, like even if you don't like your secretary of State, this is a horrible time to be swapping out your chief diplomat when you're about to enter probably the most high stakes political diplomatic channels that we've seen in recent years, and especially when the secretary of Defense and secretary of State have such a close relationship.
They almost do nothing without checking with one another. It's a very functional relationship inside the administration. And at this critical time in North Korea, I'd be very concerned about that.
[09:05:01] BERMAN: Well, that's exactly the time to do it, the White House says. Our reporting from Boris Sanchez at the White House is that the president wanted new blood heading into the North Korea talks.
KIRBY: Yes, well, I mean, obviously it's his choice. He's the president and he gets to have the secretary of State that he wants. I mean, I don't want to begrudge him that. It just seems to me that because Tillerson has been such a part of this pressure campaign, he has been such an integral piece of it, in fact, even at their most boisterous and bellicose, the White House would say they were still pushing diplomacy.
And it really has been Mattis and Tillerson working in tandem to try to increase that pressure on North Korea. It seems they've gotten to a level of success that they -- this seems to be an unfortunate bit of timing for me. I mean, I guess he gets who he wants. But I just -- it's a head-scratcher I think.
BERMAN: Yes, Admiral, stand by if you will. And lest we forget.
BERMAN: Look, this relationship has never been close. Rex Tillerson, the secretary of State, never denied the reports that he called the president a moron. So that happened. And on top of it all, they never really saw eye-to-eye on key foreign policy issues.
We're joined now by our national security correspondent Jim Sciutto.
You know, and Jim, the secretary of State was a different type of voice inside this administration.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (via phone): This is a big deal, John. I just -- I don't think you can underestimate that. He was a moderating voice on a number of major national security issues. First of all he was much more forward leaning than the president on Russia, willing, as you noted in the last 48 hours, to point the finger at Russia for this poisoning in the UK to a degree that the president would not.
Also on other issues, with Russia meddling in the election, et cetera, a moderating voice on North Korea, on other issues as well. And an ally of Defense Secretary Mattis, this kind of balancing force that you have in the administration. Every administration has factions or groups, et cetera. And that one was once seen as one that moderated the president's strongest impulses and directions away from kind of mainstream U.S. foreign policy.
So in that sense it's a big deal. In the other sense, you know, in terms of the -- for lack of a better word -- insult to the secretary of State, he was let go while he was traveling. Right? No face-to- face, come into the Oval Office, sit down, let's discuss this. He was on a trip, a foreign trip representing the United States when he was let know that he would be let go and more substantively the president made a major decision on North Korea it appears without consulting the secretary of State, deciding to have a face-to-face sit-down with the North Korean leader at a time when his secretary of State was out of the country, does not demonstrate confidence in him.
Now on the flipside, it's been rumored for weeks that this was in the works, that questions about how long Tillerson's tenure was. And Mike Pompeo, a trusted adviser to the president, had always been a leading candidate -- the leading candidate, in fact, to replace him. So, you know, this is a secretary of State who's had to operate under that environment for a number of months, which is not -- you know, if you're sitting down with foreign leaders, right, and they know that you might not -- you might be a short-timer doesn't necessarily give you the strongest influence with those foreign leaders.
Beyond the fact that he has had open and public disagreements with his own president, just in terms of their -- the different ways that they've made public comments on things like Russia.
BERMAN: Public disagreements, when you call someone a moron reportedly that is, in fact, a public disagreement.
Jim, again stand by.
This is a major shakeup in the national security leadership of this country. So let's go to the Pentagon. Our Barbara Starr is there.
And we know that the secretary of State -- James Mattis and the secretary of State had a close relationship.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: They very much did and do, John. And I think what you just said is exactly the point. This is not just a shakeup at the State Department. It is the shakeup in the national security leadership in the country because Mattis and Tillerson spoke several times a week many times. They would meet, they would discuss. And Mattis, who doesn't like to talk about anything about how he operates, would openly tell the press corps that he would work things out with Rex Tillerson before they went to the president, before they went to the National Security Council on issues like North Korea or Russia or fighting ISIS.
When they have something to discuss, they'd have lunch, they'd have breakfast, they'd work it out and they would present a very unified front. Secretary Mattis for months now saying that North Korea was led by the diplomatic process at the State Department, that while military options were always on the table, it was State Department diplomacy leading the way.
So now what happens? Mattis is going to have to find a new route. He's going to have to find a path for working with Pompeo and trying to reconstruct that.
[09:10:04] But it also comes, as we know, there is growing chatter that the National Security adviser, General HR McMaster also is making plans to leave. He may return to the private sector in the coming months. There will be a shakeup there. There's constant talk about the Chief of Staff John Kelly, someone who is also very close to Mattis. But at minimum what you do see is a quite significant change in the process by which all of this works.
And why is that so important to Americans? You know, the bureaucracy is the bureaucracy. It's the people who give the advice to the president about these crucial issues just as he's about to potentially sit down with the North Koreans as the Russians are allegedly poisoning people in the UK, causing trouble in Syria, causing trouble throughout the Middle East.
This is the time that muscular diplomacy would be the preferred option of course to military action. And it's going to be a shakeup in how that kind of advice is formulated and given to the president and whether the president will continue to listen to it, John.
BERMAN: You know, more diplomatic and you know political minefields than we have seen in some, some time.
All right. Barbara Starr, thanks very much.
Kaitlan Collins -- do we have Kaitlan Collins with us right now? I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I misheard that. Let me get Bob Baer, a CNN Intelligence Security analyst on with us right now. And Bob, again we were talking about the diplomatic and security challenges facing this administration right now. Unique there is this meeting with North Korea, still dealing with Russia. What do you make of the timing of this move?
ROBERT BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: Well, John, this couldn't be a worse time right now especially in Britain. Britain was attacked with a weapon of mass destruction which came from Russia. Europe is in crisis. This is the news there.
Rex Tillerson simply stated the facts, the Russians were behind this and this couldn't stand. And now the president of the United States fires him in the middle of a crisis. You don't fire a secretary of State in the middle of a crisis ever. And then you got Syria which is is getting worse by the minute, and then you've got North Korea.
Very risky diplomacy. You need somebody who's been around and is fact-based in making changes like this, changing horses in the middle of crossing the river is the last thing you want to do. It shows the administration in crisis and I think this is very unfortunate, John.
BERMAN: Bob, stand by, if you will. Admiral Kirby is still with us. We just got some fresh reporting from our Kaitlan Collins from inside the White House where the word is that the president felt that the secretary of State -- the outgoing secretary of state, Rex Tillerson did not have his back. There was the moron issue, there was apparent policy splits on some issues, what we've seen in the last 24 hours, taking a very different harder stance on Russia over the last 24 hours. Did not think the secretary had his back. He clearly thinks that the CIA director Mike Pompeo does.
Now Mike Pompeo, I do want to remind people is someone who has spoken in interesting terms about the Russia investigation, misspeaking, saying that the Intelligence Community found that no votes were changed by Russian meddling when, in fact, they did not make that declaratory statement.
What does this "did not have his back" notion mean to you, admiral?
I think I've lost Admiral John Kirby.
Bob, I don't know if you heard that. Bob Baer, are you still with me?
BAER: I did hear that. And the thing is that Pompeo has gone out of his way not to bring up Russia when he briefs the president. He's taken over the counterintelligence center at the CIA which is in charge of the Russia investigation. He personally controlled it. And any Russian stuff was put in footnotes which the president didn't see.
Mike Pompeo did not drive this issue into the ground as Tillerson has in other people. So I can see one reason that Trump would feel more comfortable with him because this Russian issue has bugged him since the election. Pompeo is going to come in and try to smooth this over. So I think it's more than a coincidence in the timing of Tillerson being fired.
BERMAN: All right. We're getting some new information in just now about what precipitated this move. The president firing frankly Rex Tillerson as secretary of State. The CIA director Mike Pompeo will be nominated to fill that John. And Gina Haspel who is the deputy director of the CIA, nominated to take over the directorship there. Who is she? What issues might surround her? What a morning here. New developments straight ahead.
BERMAN: All right. The breaking news this morning, we just learned that President Donald Trump has fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He will nominate the director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo to replace him.
You're looking at live pictures of Air Force One, the president getting ready to depart for a trip to California right now. The president at this moment is speaking to reporters outside the White House. We do not yet have a read on what he is saying.
He is speaking to reporters, this is being taped right now. As soon as we do have the video tape of what he says, we will play it for you. No doubt we are waiting his comments to find out exactly why he made the move, how he informed the secretary of state and what his plans are going forward.
In the meantime, our Abby Phillip on the other side of the White House even as the president speaks. What's the latest from there?
ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. We're learning a little more about what happened with Rex Tillerson, and some of this reporting seems to indicate that the president made this decision while Tillerson was traveling in Africa.
[09:20:04] Tillerson arrived back in the United States at 4:00 a.m. this morning. He had cut that trip a little short and the State Department said because he had meetings here in Washington.
But clearly, according to our sources the president believed Tillerson was not sufficiently loyal to him, especially when it comes to his agenda. They were not seeing eye to eye on policy, especially with the new meetings with North Korea on the horizon, to make a transition in that job.
You have to remember, John, all the way back, months ago, Tillerson have reportedly called the president a moron. That issue has never sat well with President Trump. He has always resented it and has never really gotten over that moment of defiance on Tillerson's part.
Tillerson also to this day has not denied explicitly that he said it. He simply refuses to discuss that issue. This has really come to a head after months and months of tension, months and months of Tillerson seeming to be on the outside of the policy making in this administration.
Remember, the president last week agreed to meet with Kim Jong-un in North Korea while Tillerson was nowhere near the White House. In those meeting were other senior administration officials who seemed to be closer to the decision-making process on this key issue.
So, again, we're seeing the president finally taking steps to move him out and move in someone who he sees as much more compatible with him on policy.
BERMAN: Abby, stand by. We're getting more information just in. This is fascinating, from our Michelle Kosinski who covers the State Department. She received a statement attributable to Steve Goldstein, the undersecretary for public diplomacy, an official State Department employee who says, "The secretary had every intention of staying because of critical progress being made in national security.
He will miss his colleagues at the Department of State and the foreign ministers that he's worked with throughout the world. The secretary did not speak to the president and is unaware of the reason, but he's grateful for the opportunity to serve and believes public service is a noble calling. He wishes the Secretary-designate Pompeo very well."
Let me read the critical line. The secretary did not speak to the president and is unaware of the reason. Again, President Donald Trump who spent a career on tv firing people, apparently unwilling, unable to fire Rex Tillerson himself, had someone else do it.
We're joined now by CNN political analysts, Rachel Bade and Alex Burns. Bob Baer still with us. Alex, that is fascinating to hear again, from a government official by name on the record, Alex, saying that the president did not speak to the secretary of state and is simply unaware of why he was fired. Alex having a hard time hearing me apparently. Rachel, I think you heard the question. Go ahead.
RACHAEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, not surprising. I mean, Trump, obviously, he likes to fire people on "The Apprentice." But when it comes to doing people in the White House, he gives the job to someone else.
I mean, think about Priebus sitting alone on the tarmac when he was fired by the president over the summer. This is something that we have seen before. Again, this was not surprising, we've heard rumors about this for a really long time.
Tillerson and the president didn't get along, didn't see eye to eye on policy. I'm reminded of a time when the president tweeted that, "Rex Tillerson, it's not time for talks with North Korea, got to show strong action," clearly rebuking him on Twitter when Tillerson suggested that perhaps they needed to engage more with North Korea.
Of course, now we're seeing the president move forward with that in the coming weeks and months, he's going to be potentially talking to the leaders of North Korea and he wants a fresh start it looks like. He never had a good relationship with this guy.
I want to say one more thing. Mike Pompeo should have a relatively smooth transition and be confirmed as the secretary of state here. He is pretty well liked by Republicans on the Hill that control majorities of both houses.
He's got to be confirmed by the Senate, of course. He is a West Point graduate, went to Harvard Law and is pretty well respected on the Hill. So, it should be a smooth transition there.
BERMAN: All right. Alex Burns, again, we are waiting to hear from the president of the United States. I looked down on my computer, and his taped comments will play back any second right now. In fact, I'm getting a readout on some of the things he said.
He said that he wishes Rex Tillerson well even though we just learned he never spoke to Rex Tillerson and calls Mike Pompeo a man of tremendous energy and says they are always on the same wave length. Politically there is no question that Mike Pompeo, the CIA director has ingratiated himself to this president, Alex.
ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's absolutely true, and he's also somebody who folks on the Hill, as Rachel is just saying, basically feel comfortable with, a former colleague. A couple important exceptions that could come into play in the event of a contentious confirmation hearing, Rand Paul has made no secret of his basically hostile view of Mike Pompeo.
[09:25:13] But John, I think taking a step back, the fact Mike Pompeo is seen as essentially a credible person on national security shouldn't obscure the bigger picture that folks in Washington and outside of Washington, the business community, the donor community, certainly the international community see this as an administration really in flux in a very, very significant way right now.
The fact you have one name, two names today plugged into roles that are obviously very important and appear to be credible people, I think doesn't entirely take away this broader sense of unease about where are we really headed here?
We have new foreign policy leadership, new economic leadership that has not been announced yet. So, where is this story really headed?
BERMAN: Look, let me add two things to this. Number one, we're also learning just moments ago that the president's personal assistant, a man named John McIntee has been pushed out of the White House. The "Wall Street Journal" says it's for security reasons. We're getting more information on that.
Again, we just learned that Rex Tillerson had not spoken to the president. The president did not fire him directly and Rex Tillerson doesn't know why he was pushed out. He wasn't given a reason.
It all adds to this word we've been hearing for the last couple of weeks surrounding this White House, chaos. It certainly doesn't detract from the notion that this White House is a currently chaotic place.
Bob Baer, since we have you, let's talk about the one person involved in this massive transition that we haven't spoken about yet, and that's Gina Haspel, the current deputy director of the CIA. She is someone you know. Tell us about her.
ROBERT BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: She used to work for me. She's very capable, very smart, well respected at the agency. She's going to be an excellent choice. She's been in 30 years, been in operations. She's good, very good. That's going to be an easy transition.
BERMAN: There is some controversy, and I think you were about to get to it before I cut you off. She was caught up in the rendition issue, the extraordinary rendition program during the Bush years. She was also involved in what some people consider to be torture of some of the people who were being held in that program. That is controversial.
BAER: It is controversial, but she wasn't really the driving force behind it. This was a Department of Justice decision. The CIA went along with it. It was a mistake. She probably realizes it was a mistake. She'll be called on the carpet for that for hearings, but you know, she wasn't the architect of it. So, I think she'll get through Congress approval pretty fast.
BERMAN: And apolitical relatively speaking?
BAER: Apolitical. She's not a neocon, not to the right. She's a professional. It's a good choice.
BERMAN: All right. As we speak right now, we are re-racking the video tape of the president as he spoke on the south lawn getting ready to depart on Marine One to head to California right now. He did speak about Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo. He also spoke about the House Intelligence Committee, saying there is no evidence of collusion. Let's play this right now.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President --
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I've worked with Mike Pompeo now for quite some time. Tremendous energy, tremendous intellect. We're always on the same wavelength. The relationship has always been very good. That's what I need as secretary of state. I wish Rex Tillerson well.
Gina, by the way, who I know very well, who I've worked with very closely will be the first woman director of the CIA. She's an outstanding person who also I have gotten to know very well. I've gotten to know a lot of people very well over the last year.
And I'm really at a point where we're getting very close to having the cabinet and other things that I want. But I think Mike Pompeo will be a truly great secretary of state. I have total confidence in him. As far as Rex Tillerson is concerned, I very much appreciate his commitment and his service, and I wish him well. He's a good man.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, what did you tell (inaudible question)?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Rex and I have been talking about this for a long time. We got along actually quite well but we disagreed on things. When you look at the Iran deal, I thought it was terrible. He thought it was OK. I wanted to either break it or do something, he felt a little differently.
So, we were not really thinking the same. With Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process. I think it's going to go very well. Rex is a very good man. I like Rex a lot. I really appreciate his commitment and his service.