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North Korea Crisis

Trump fires top diplomat Tillerson ahead of North Korea talks

Hawkish successor from CIA portends policy upheaval

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, was ousted by President Donald Trump on March 13.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump announced Tuesday that CIA Director Mike Pompeo will replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, a step likely to influence Washington's stance on North Korea.

Trump has pursued isolationist "America first" policies and was often at odds with Tillerson, who pushed for greater international cooperation. The two clashed especially heavily over North Korea, with Trump putting military action on the table and Tillerson aiming for a diplomatic solution.

Though Trump has now accepted an offer for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, he told reporters Tuesday that he "made that decision by myself."

Tillerson had also encouraged Trump to uphold the Iran nuclear deal and tried to change the president's mind on leaving the Paris climate agreement.

Tillerson was notified Friday that he could be replaced, leading him to return home from an Africa trip a day early, according to American news outlets. CNN reported that he learned of the final decision from Trump's tweet.

"The secretary did not speak to the president this morning and is unaware of the reason" for his dismissal, said Steve Goldstein, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, in a statement Tuesday before he himself was dismissed.

It is highly unusual for a secretary of state to be replaced after only a year or so. Pompeo will need confirmation by the Senate.

"I am confident he is the right person for the job at this critical juncture," Trump said of Pompeo in a statement distributed by the White House.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Feb. 13.   © Reuters

Pompeo said in a statement that "I look forward to guiding the world's finest diplomatic corps in formulating and executing the president's foreign policy."

A former military officer, Pompeo served in Congress before becoming director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He has been criticized for defending the agency's use of torture. CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel will succeed him, also following Senate confirmation.

Trump wanted his new team in place ahead of talks with North Korea and ongoing trade negotiations, a senior White House official said.

Although relatively new to the Trump inner circle, Pompeo has won the president's trust with tailored briefings on classified information. Yet his ability to handle delicate topics like the North Korea issue remains to be seen, considering his lack of formal diplomatic experience.

Tillerson is only the latest of many high-profile officials to leave the White House. Gary Cohn recently announced his resignation as director of the National Economic Council.

Tillerson's exit had been rumored for some time, given his repeated disagreements with Trump on foreign policy. Shortly before the president said he would meet with Kim, Tillerson had stressed that the U.S. was a "long ways from negotiations" with North Korea. A number of details still need working out ahead of the summit, from the time and place to the actual agenda.

Concerned by Trump's disregard for diplomatic protocol, Tillerson worked during his tenure to soften the president's more hard-line stances, such as on the Iran deal and greater Middle East policy. But this dynamic led to inconsistencies in White House positions. Tillerson also reportedly called Trump a "moron" after a meeting of cabinet and national security officials last summer.

Tillerson defended his record Tuesday, telling reporters that "working with allies, we exceeded the expectations of almost everyone" with the "maximum pressure" campaign to denuclearize North Korea.

"And we commenced the steps to dramatically increase not just the scope, but the effectiveness of the sanctions" he said. "The department undertook a global campaign to bring partners and allies on board in every country around the world, with every embassy and mission raising this to the highest levels."

The change in top diplomats comes at a critical point for the nation and raises concern over further damage to American global leadership.

Pompeo's diplomatic instincts will likely align more closely with Trump's. A conservative Republican, he has criticized the Iran agreement as well as Muslim immigrants.

"We have a very similar thought process," Trump said of Pompeo on Tuesday.

The new secretary will inherit a weakened State Department. The brain drain includes the recently announced departures of Thomas Shannon, undersecretary for political affairs, and Joseph Yun, special representative for North Korea policy. An appointment for the ambassador to South Korea fell apart at the last minute.

Only about 60 of roughly 150 State Department posts requiring Senate confirmation have been filled, according to The Washington Post. With doubts already swirling over the department's ability to prepare for a summit with Kim, the exit by Tillerson only makes matters worse.

The turnover in senior government officials will likely persist. Trump has also publicly criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions' decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. And the president is said to have locked horns with Chief of Staff John Kelly, who is trying to impose greater discipline in the White House.

Just 42% of Americans approve of Trump's approach on the North Korea issue, with 50% disapproving, in a CBS News poll published Tuesday.

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