Tillerson Skips Trump in Farewell Remarks

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson steps away from the podium after speaking at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, Tuesday, March 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson steps away from the podium after speaking at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, Tuesday, March 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Just-fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson never mentioned President Donald Trump by name in farewell remarks Tuesday, confirming that he learned he was out of a job from a Trump Tweet handed him by an aide.

In a quavering voice, Tillerson left out the traditional thanks to the president he served and omitted any endorsements of his policies.

Instead, he praised Defense Secretary Jim Mattis for his support in valuing diplomacy as a vital tool in protecting the nation's national security interests.

"I received a phone call from the president of the United States shortly after noontime from Air Force One," some three hours after Trump sent out a Tweet saying he was nominating CIA Director Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, Tillerson said.

In an earlier statement released to the media, State Department spokesman Steve Goldstein said Tillerson "had every intention of staying because of the critical progress made in national security," particularly on the latest opening with North Korea.

"The secretary did not speak to the president and is unaware of the reason" for his removal, said Goldstein, who also was fired shortly after the release of the statement.

On the White House lawn before departing on a trip to California, Trump said of Tillerson, "We got along, actually, quite well but we disagreed on things," confirming long-standing rumors of his rocky relationship with the nation's top diplomat.

"When you look at the Iran deal, I think it's terrible; I guess he thought it was OK," Trump said of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in which Iran agreed to give up its nuclear programs in return for the lifting of sanctions.

"I wanted to either break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently," Trump said.

Tillerson was also left out of the loop on the startling announcement last week that Trump had agreed to a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

"No, I really didn't discuss it very much with him, honestly. I made that decision by myself. Rex wasn't, as you know, in this country," Trump said. "I made the North Korea decision with consultation from many people, but I made that decision by myself."

At the State Department, Tillerson thanked Mattis, career diplomats and the American people, but left out Trump. He also laced his remarks with what could be seen as personal digs at the president.

Tillerson called on all State Department employees to treat each other with "integrity and honesty," suggesting a contrast to the way he was removed. He also urged them to confront "challenges of sexual harassment within the department."

It is not unusual in the Trump administration for top officials to learn from others that they have been fired.

Last May, then-FBI Director James Comey found out he had been dismissed from news reports while on a visit to a California field office. Comey did not know whether he was authorized to take the FBI plane back home to Washington, D.C. The FBI sent him home without waiting for authorization.

The firing of Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil chief, came after he joined British Prime Minister Theresa May in pointing the finger at Russia and President Vladimir Putin in the attempted murder of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury.

Earlier, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said it is too early to tell whether Russia is involved but Tillerson said: "We have full confidence in the U.K.'s [United Kingdom's] investigation and its assessment that Russia was likely responsible for the nerve agent attack that took place in Salisbury last week."

He continued, "We are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behavior. From Ukraine to Syria -- and now the U.K. -- Russia continues to be an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens."

Trump said Tuesday that he might condemn Russia for the attack but would have to talk first with the British prime minister.

"As soon as we get the facts straight, and we're going to be speaking with the British today. We're speaking with Theresa May today and, as soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be," Trump said.

Trump said that he lacked "chemistry" with Tillerson but was expected to be on the same "America First" wavelength with Pompeo, a West Point graduate and former Republican representative from Kansas who was a Tea Party favorite in three terms in office.

"I am proud to nominate the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo, to be our new Secretary of State," Trump said.

He also nominated Gina Haspel, the current Deputy Director of the CIA, to replace Pompeo and become "the CIA's first-ever female director, a historic milestone," Trump said.

Pompeo's nomination was expected to go smoothly, but Haspel's could be problematic. Haspel, who has spent much of her career in covert action, allegedly ran a "black site" in Thailand that used harsh interrogation techniques and has been charged by human rights groups with attempting to destroy evidence of the interrogations.

In a statement, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who is battling brain cancer at home in Arizona, praised Pompeo's nomination but had reservations about Haspel.

"During his own confirmation proceedings for Director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo repeatedly committed that he would comply with the law that applies the Army Field Manual's interrogation requirements to all U.S. agencies, including the CIA," McCain said.

"The American people now deserve the same assurances from Gina Haspel, whose career with the agency has intersected with the program of so-called 'enhanced interrogation techniques' on a number of occasions," McCain said.

In his remarks at the State Department, Tillerson said he would end his duties immediately and turn them over to John Sulllivan, the deputy secretary of State. He said his formal resignation would officially take place at midnight March 31.

"I'll now return to private life, as a private citizen, as a proud American, proud of the opportunity I had to serve my country," Tillerson said.

Tillerson was not Trump's first choice as Secretary of State. Trump interviewed several other prospects at Trump Tower in New York, including former Gov. Mitt Romney, R-Massachusetts, before settling on the surprise choice of the former oil executive from Texas.

Their differences were apparent almost from the start. Tillerson wanted the U.S. to stay in the Paris climate accord; Trump took the U.S. out. Tillerson backed the JCPOA; Trump called it an "embarrassment."

Then there was the flap over Tillerson allegedly calling Trump a "moron." NBC reported last July that Tillerson used the term "moron" preceded by an obscenity after a meeting at the Pentagon with Cabinet officials.

Tillerson later denied that he was considering resigning but did not specifically deny calling Trump a "moron."

As he walked to the helicopter Tuesday, Trump was asked about the "moron" flap but apparently couldn't hear the question.

A reporter asked "Did you fire him because he called you a moron?" Trump said "What?" Again, the question was asked: "Did you fire him because he called you a moron?" Trump responded

"Say it again," but he boarded the helicopter before allowing another question.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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