The White House has reportedly developed a plan to force Rex W. Tillerson out as secretary of state as President Trump has soured on him.
WASHINGTON — The White House has developed a plan to force out Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, whose relationship with President Trump has been strained, and replace him with Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director, perhaps within the next several weeks, senior administration officials said on Thursday.
Mr. Pompeo would probably be succeeded at the C.I.A. by Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas and key ally of the president on national security matters, according to the White House plan. Mr. Cotton has signaled that he would accept the job if offered, said the officials, who insisted on anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations before decisions are announced.
Mr. Trump has not signed off on the plan developed by John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, officials said, but the president is said to have soured on Mr. Tillerson and is ready to make a change at the State Department. Mr. Trump spoke harshly about Mr. Tillerson in front of White House aides as recently as Thursday but did not seem ready yet to replace him, according to one person close to the president.
For all his public combativeness and his “you’re fired” reputation from reality television, Mr. Trump is often reluctant to dismiss advisers. The disclosure of Mr. Kelly’s transition plan may have been a way to nudge him into making a decision, according to that person. It may also have been meant as a not-too-subtle message to Mr. Tillerson that it is time to go.
The ouster of Mr. Tillerson would end a turbulent reign at the State Department for the former Exxon Mobil chief executive, who has been largely marginalized over the last year. Mr. Trump and Mr. Tillerson have been at odds over a host of major issues, including the Iran nuclear deal, the confrontation with North Korea and a clash between Arab allies. The secretary was reported to have privately called Mr. Trump a “moron” and the president publicly criticized Mr. Tillerson for “wasting his time” with a diplomatic outreach to North Korea.
Replacing him with Mr. Pompeo could presage a dramatic change. While many veteran diplomats have expressed disappointment in Mr. Tillerson for the way he has run the State Department, they see him as a pragmatic figure in the Situation Room. Mr. Pompeo, a former congressman from the Tea Party wing of the party, would be more hawkish on Iran, North Korea and other key issues.
But his appointment could produce a more consistent public message on foreign policy for an administration that has spoken in multiple voices. Mr. Trump and Mr. Tillerson have often seemed to describe contradictory policies, a confusion only exacerbated by the presence of other voices like Nikki R. Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations, and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and conduit to certain foreign countries.
The White House did little on Thursday to discourage the impression that Mr. Tillerson was on the way out. The secretary was in the West Wing twice for meetings during the day, but neither the president nor his team gave a public reaffirmation of his position in the administration.
As he hosted the visiting crown prince of Bahrain, Mr. Trump was asked by reporters if he wanted Mr. Tillerson to stay on the job. “He’s here,” Mr. Trump said simply. “Rex is here.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, later issued a statement saying that “there are no personnel announcements at this time,” not denying that there was a transition plan in mind.
“When the president loses confidence in someone, they will no longer serve in the capacity that they’re in,” Ms. Sanders told reporters at a briefing later in the day. “The president was here today with the secretary of state. They engaged in a foreign leader visit and are continuing to work together to close out what we’ve seen to be an incredible year.”
Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, sought to portray Mr. Tillerson as having a routine day, noting that in addition to two trips to the White House, he had breakfast with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, met with Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel of Germany and spoke with the United Nations secretary general.
“He remains, as I have been told, committed to doing this job,” Ms. Nauert said. “He does serve at the pleasure of the president. This is a job that he enjoys.”
She said Mr. Kelly called Margaret Peterlin, Mr. Tillerson’s chief of staff, to tell her that reports that the secretary was being pushed out were false.
Mr. Tillerson is scheduled to leave Monday on a trip to Europe, stopping in Brussels for talks with his NATO counterparts and then heading to Stockholm, Vienna and Paris. Asked how he could continue to conduct diplomacy when his standing within the administration was so uncertain, Ms. Nauert said that Mr. Tillerson “is someone whose feathers don’t get ruffled very easily.”
Mr. Tillerson’s departure has been widely anticipated for months, but associates have said he was intent on finishing out the year to retain whatever dignity he could. Even so, an end-of-year exit would make his time in office the shortest of any secretary of state whose tenure did not end around a change in presidents in nearly 120 years.
While some administration officials initially expected him to be replaced by Ms. Haley, Mr. Pompeo has become the favorite. A former three-term member of the House, he has impressed Mr. Trump during daily intelligence briefings and become a trusted policy adviser on issues far beyond the C.I.A.’s mandate, like health care. But he has been criticized by intelligence officers for being too political in his job.
Mr. Cotton has been perhaps Mr. Trump’s most important supporter in the Senate on national security and immigration and a valued outside adviser. Officials cautioned that there was still a debate about whether Mr. Cotton was more valuable to the president in the Senate than in taking over the spy agency in Langley, Va.
Under Arkansas state law, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, would appoint a replacement who could serve until the 2018 election. That could put another seat in play during a midterm election when Republicans, with 52 of 100 seats in the Senate, cannot afford to take too many chances. If Mr. Cotton stayed in the Senate, his seat would not be up for election again until 2020.
Asked on Fox News about a possible move, Mr. Cotton ducked the question. “I’m very proud to be representing the people of Arkansas,” he said.
Another candidate in the mix in recent weeks is Robert S. Harward, a retired Navy vice admiral who interviewed for and then declined the position of national security adviser after Michael T. Flynn was pushed out in February.
The decline in Mr. Tillerson’s fortunes was evident in Mr. Kelly’s role in developing the transition plan. Although Mr. Kelly sought over the summer to keep Mr. Tillerson from leaving for the sake of continuity, the chief of staff has since grown weary of the constant fighting over personnel between the State Department and the White House, according to White House officials. White House aides have made it clear to a number of presidential appointees that Mr. Tillerson’s days were numbered, and the only question was how long he would remain.
Mr. Tillerson’s appointment was something of an experiment from the start. Never before had a president named a secretary of state with no prior experience in government, politics or the military. Mr. Trump, who himself had no government or military experience before this year, gambled that Mr. Tillerson would be able to translate his formidable skills in the corporate world to international diplomacy after 41 years at Exxon Mobil.
But Mr. Tillerson has often been on a different page than Mr. Trump, and he has spent much of his time reorganizing the State Department, slashing its budget and pushing out more than 2,000 career diplomats. Even on that he ran into serious troubles. Just this week, the counselor he brought in to execute his plan quit after just three months.
The disconnect on foreign policy was clear this week, too. On Wednesday, Ms. Haley said in a speech that all nations should suspend diplomatic relations with North Korea. But Ms. Nauert declined in a briefing on Thursday to endorse Ms. Haley’s call, saying only that if foreign governments “would be willing to close their missions in North Korea altogether I think that that is something that we would be supportive of.”
Peter Baker and Gardiner Harris reported from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York.