WASHINGTON – The United States’ Department of State said on Thursday it has been assured that press reports indicating a plan is in the works to replace Secretary Rex Tillerson are false.
The department’s spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, said in her daily press briefing that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly had conveyed that message to Tillerson.
Nauert made her remarks when asked about stories published Thursday by The New York Times, the Washington Post and other US dailies.
Citing anonymous sources, those newspapers said President Donald Trump wants to replace Tillerson with the current director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo, and put Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, a close Trump ally and immigration hard-liner, at the helm of the CIA.
“He kind of brushed this off today; he’s heard these kinds of stories before,” Nauert said of Tillerson. “He’s just going on about his business.”
“What I can tell you is that chief of staff Kelly called our department this morning and said that the rumors are not true, that the reports are not true,” she added.
In a separate press conference, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not provide a definitive answer when asked if Trump has confidence in Tillerson.
“When the president loses confidence in someone, they will no longer serve in the capacity that they’re in,” she said.
Earlier Thursday, Trump gave a cryptic reply when asked by a reporter if he wants Tillerson to stay on as his top diplomat.
“He’s here. Rex is here,” Trump said.
Rumors have swirled for months that Tillerson’s differences with the president might trigger his ouster.
The former ExxonMobil chief executive officer tried to tamp down speculation about his future early last month, holding a press conference in which he denied giving thought to resigning.
“I’ve never considered leaving this post,” Tillerson said in a surprise Oct. 4 news conference after the NBC television network reported that he had weighed the possibility of stepping down this summer amid growing tensions with the White House and had even referred to Trump as a “moron” during a private meeting.
Tillerson and Trump have clashed repeatedly over key foreign policy issues, including the Iran nuclear deal and the crisis with North Korea.
The secretary of state has spoken publicly in favor of the US remaining in the Iran deal, though saying changes need to be made, while Trump has threatened to withdraw the US from an agreement he has described as a “disaster.”
Trump and Tillerson also have appeared to be at odds over how to handle the North Korean nuclear threat.
Tillerson said in a press conference in late September in Beijing that the US had established direct channels with the secretive Asian nation and was seeking to calm tensions related to its defiant pursuit of a nuclear program.
But Trump said a day later that those attempts would not be worth pursuing.
“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump said in an Oct. 1 tweet, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”
With respect to Cotton, the Times reported that Trump’s advisers are still debating whether he would be more valuable to the president in his current role in the Senate, where he is a key supporter of the president’s national security and immigration agenda, or as CIA chief.
Cotton’s seat would be in play in the 2018 midterm elections if he leaves the Senate, where the Republican Party has a slim majority, while if the Arkansas lawmaker stays he would not face re-election until 2020.