White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has said Rex Tillerson will remain as the US secretary of state, but refused to say whether President Donald Trump has still confidence in Tillerson.
Sanders made the remarks during a news conference on Thursday after multiple news outlets reported the White House has prepared a plan to replace Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, a Trump loyalist and foreign policy hard-liner.
Sanders was asked repeatedly if Tillerson still enjoys Trump’s backing in response to the reports of a staff shake up.
“When the president loses confidence in someone, they will no longer serve in the capacity that they’re in,” Sanders replied.
She said the president and the secretary of state are “continuing to work together to close out what we’ve seen to be an incredible year.”
“I think his future right now is to continue working hard as the secretary of State, continue working with the president, to carry out his agenda,” she added.
Senior Trump administration officials said on Thursday Trump is planning to remove Tillerson in favor of Pompeo, Reuters reported.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity,sai that Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a foreign policy hard-liner and one of Trump’s staunchest supporters in Congress, is likely to replace Pompeo as the CIA director.
US Republican Senator Tom Cotton
However, it was not immediately clear whether Trump had given final approval to the dismissal of Tillerson, whose relationship has been strained by the top US diplomat’s softer line on North Korea and other differences.
Meanwhile, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert also sought to play down the reports, saying White House chief of staff John Kelly had called Tillerson to tell him the news were not true. She added that Tillerson “serves at the pleasure of the president.”
Tensions between Tillerson and Trump have been simmering for months, sometimes visibly as the two have publicly diverged on some of the administration’s most crucial foreign policy challenges, including Iran and North Korea.
Tillerson has said that Iran is in “technical compliance” with the 2015 nuclear agreement.
The remarks by the top US diplomat are in sharp contrast with Trump’s assessment that the nuclear agreement is an “embarrassment” to the United States.
Trump has accused Iran of not acting in keeping with the international nuclear deal, while Tillerson has been working on a plan to keep the United States in a 2015 multilateral nuclear deal with Iran despite vociferous rhetoric against the agreement by the US president.
Trump and Tillerson have also often contradicted each other on North Korea.
Tillerson has said Washington has maintained direct channels of communications with North Korea even, but Trump has repeatedly threatened the Asian country with military strikes.
Last month, Tillerson dismissed a report by NBC that said he had been on the verge of resigning from his position during the summer over mounting policy disputes with the White House.
NBC reported in early October that Tillerson referred to Trump as a “moron” after a meeting in July at the Pentagon with members of his national security team and Cabinet members.
A few days after the report, Trump harshly criticized Tillerson in an interview with Forbes magazine, suggesting that he’s smarter than the top US diplomat.