White House dismisses reports of Tillerson replacement

Could Rex Tillerson (left) be replaced by Mike Pompeo? [Photo: AFP]

WASHINGTON - The White House has dismissed reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is about to be replaced.

The US top diplomat "continues to lead the state department", White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

And a state department spokeswoman said the reports "were not true".

The denials come amid reports from several news organizations, citing unnamed administration officials, that plans were being drawn up to replace him with CIA chief Mike Pompeo.

President Donald Trump and Mr. Tillerson have disagreed on foreign policy issues and are said not to get on.

Where are the reports coming from?

They first emerged in the New York Times and Vanity Fair, which quoted government sources.

The Associated Press then quoted two unnamed White House officials as saying a plan was being discussed.

Now Reuters news agency, too, is quoting sources within the administration.

Under the alleged plan, Mr. Pompeo would be replaced at the CIA by Republican Senator Tom Cotton, and the reshuffle could take place as soon as December or in January.

However, it is not yet clear whether Mr. Trump has given final approval to the move, the New York Times says.

How is the Trump administration reacting?

Business, as usual, is the watchword.

"As the president just said: 'Rex is here,'" Ms. Sanders said.

"There are no personnel announcements at this time.

"Secretary Tillerson continues to lead the state department and the entire cabinet is focused on completing this incredibly successful first year of President Trump's administration."

In a later briefing, Ms. Sanders added: "When the president loses confidence in someone, they will no longer serve here."

At the state department, spokeswoman Heather Nauert conceded that Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Trump have had policy differences.

But she said that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly had phoned the department to say "the rumors are not true".

When asked how Mr. Tillerson, who is due in Europe next week, could continue to do his job while the White House was briefing journalists he was about to lose it, she said: "The secretary of state is someone who doesn't let his feathers get ruffled very easily."

In further reaction to the reports, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said Mr. Tillerson was "unaware of anything changing".

And Defence Secretary James Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon that there was "nothing" to the reports.

Why would Trump want Tillerson gone?

Relations are not reported to be good.

Mr. Trump's disenchantment with Mr. Tillerson, a former chief executive of energy giant Exxon Mobil, has been rumored for some time.

The secretary of state has defended the multi-party deal to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions in return for a loosening of sanctions - an agreement derided by Mr. Trump.

Mr. Tillerson's alleged description, in private, of Mr. Trump as a "moron" is unlikely to have helped relations either.

And in June, Mr. Trump and Mr. Tillerson were giving out contradictory messages about the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The secretary of state warned that the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar could affect the fight against extremism and was having humanitarian consequences.

Mr. Trump, on the other hand, appeared to endorse Saudi policy, suggesting the blockade might herald "the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism" - a reference to allegations Qatar allows funding of extremist groups.

To add to Mr. Tillerson's woes, his plans for the radical restructuring of the state department are not going down well in some quarters.

Democrats and some Republicans have expressed concern the restructuring - involving sackings and budget cuts - could undermine America's interests abroad.