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News Reports Say Trump Plans to Replace Secretary of State With CIA Chief

FILE - U.S. President Donald Trump, accompanied by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, is pictured in Manila, Philippines, site of an ASEAN summit, Nov. 14, 2017.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's job again appeared to be in jeopardy Thursday following fresh reports that President Donald Trump wants to replace him with Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo in the coming weeks.

Several news publications, citing senior White House officials who declined to be identified, reported the relationship between Trump and Tillerson had become strained over the past year and that the president favored replacing him with the CIA chief, with whom he has a better rapport.

Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a staunch ally of Trump on national security issues, would reportedly replace Pompeo as the CIA chief.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders attempted to play down the reports Thursday, saying that "when the president loses confidence in someone, they will no longer serve in the capacity they are in."

For now, Tillerson will work hard as secretary of state, and "there are no personnel announcements at this time," Sanders said during the daily news briefing.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert also gave a cautious response, saying Tillerson was still in his job and would travel to Europe next week as planned.

Several U.S. news outlets reported that the shakeup of Trump's top national security team has been under consideration for months, although it remained unclear whether Trump had made a decision.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo speaks during the Foundation for Defense of Democracies National Security Summit in Washington, Oct. 19, 2017.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo speaks during the Foundation for Defense of Democracies National Security Summit in Washington, Oct. 19, 2017.

Earlier Thursday, in a brief exchange with reporters at the White House, Trump, when asked about Tillerson's fate, said, "He's here. Rex is here." The president made no other comments.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis also weighed in when asked, saying, "I make nothing of it. There's nothing to it."

Troubled tenure

Tillerson's departure from the State Department would end a troubled tenure for the former ExxonMobil chief executive, who has clashed with Trump over dealing with the nuclear threat posed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told VOA, "The secretary of state is only influential if he is perceived as close to the president. Now that the White House has told multiple media outlets it intends to replace Rex Tillerson, he has been stripped of any power he enjoyed."

James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation said he did not want to speculate about any Cabinet shakeup, and noted that the administration had been honest and upfront about policy differences. He told VOA both Tillerson and Pompeo were serving the country well in their present jobs.

"Pompeo has done a great job at the intelligence agency. He has brought some real needed leadership there. He has been very effective," Carafano said. "I think Tillerson has been an effective part of the policymaking team. I think he has done a lot of personal diplomacy around the world representing the government pretty well."

Tillerson has given no indication he plans to resign, saying in early October, "There has never been a consideration in my mind to leave. I serve at the appointment of the president and I am here for as long as the president feels I can be useful to achieving his objectives."

Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he spoke with Tillerson on Thursday.

"He's conducting business, as is the norm, and is unaware of anything changing," Corker told reporters.

Trump routinely has disparaged North Korea's Kim as "Little Rocket Man" and has threatened to unleash U.S. military power on North Korea if it attacks the U.S. or its allies. Months ago, Trump told Tillerson in a Twitter comment to stop wasting his time trying to negotiate with the Pyongyang dictator.

At one point, Tillerson, 65, was quoted as calling Trump a "moron" after a Pentagon meeting.

He did not deny making the disparaging assessment of the U.S. leader's intellect, instead deflecting questions about the story, saying it was part of Washington political games. "I'm not going to deal with that petty stuff," he said at the time.

Pompeo, Cotton

Pompeo, 53, a former three-term congressman from Kansas, apparently has won Trump's favor while giving him the CIA's daily intelligence briefings in person at the White House, rather than delegating that responsibility to a staff aide.

FILE - Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., arrives in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 11, 2015.
FILE - Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., arrives in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 11, 2015.

Cotton is a staunchly conservative lawmaker who has often voiced support for Trump's policies. He has signaled that he would take the job as CIA director if Trump offered it.

Human rights groups on Thursday expressed concern about the possible appointment of Pompeo and Cotton to the State Department and CIA, respectively.

"If they are confirmed, Pompeo and Cotton will be charged with making decisions that could affect the human rights of people around the world," Amnesty International Executive Director Margaret Huang said in statement. "Both have been proponents of torture and indefinite detention in the past, and must undergo aggressive scrutiny by the Senate before they can be allowed to assume such critically important positions in the U.S. government."

Rob Berschinski of Human Rights First welcomed a change in leadership at the State Department and said anyone who succeeded Tillerson should "immediately halt the destructive policies that have laid waste to morale at the State Department," with lawmakers treating the confirmation process as a matter of "war and peace."

"The United States can ill afford a replay of the ideologically driven decision-making that led us into disaster in Iraq," Berschinski said in a statement. "The American people deserve a top diplomat invested in diplomacy, not in downplaying the costs of war with Iran or North Korea."

VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report.

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