Tuesday , March 13, 2018 - 9:55 AM
(c) 2018, The Washington Post.
Thursday, March 8
When the biggest diplomatic move of President Donald Trump’s administration to date was announced, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in Ethiopia.
Tillerson had just arrived on the African continent Thursday for a multiday trip when a delegation from South Korea arrived at the White House to discuss recent negotiations with North Korea. They were there to meet with top aides to the president, but Trump himself intervened, inviting them into the Oval Office. There, he was told that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was open to discussions with the United States, and Trump, without hesitation, agreed.
The South Korean delegation announced the anticipated meeting between the United States and North Korea from the White House driveway. Only hours before, Tillerson had been asked about the prospect of discussions with the North Koreans.
“We’re a long ways from negotiations,” Tillerson told the media. The distance, it turns out, was much shorter than Tillerson knew.
Friday, March 9
At some point on Friday, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly contacted Tillerson, according to the Associated Press, to inform him that there might soon be a presidential tweet concerning him. That call was likely in the middle of the night for Tillerson, according to Bloomberg News. Tillerson told Bloomberg and other members of the press that he’d had a call at 2:30 a.m. about which he couldn’t say anything further.
Tillerson continued on to Djibouti. Trump’s schedule for the day was largely empty.
Saturday, March 10
Tillerson’s schedule on Saturday was cleared by the State Department, attributed to Tillerson not feeling well.
Trump traveled to Pittsburgh for a rally on behalf of a congressional candidate in the state. During his speech, he celebrated the apparent breakthrough with North Korea.
“When the South Korean representatives who just left North Korea came outside, big throng of press, they announced that North Korea, Kim Jong Un, would like to meet with President Trump,” the president said. “This doesn’t happen, you know. They say well, Obama could have done that. Trust me, he wouldn’t have done it. And by the way, neither would Bush, and neither would Clinton. And they had their shot, and all they did was nothing.”
Sunday, March 11
Tillerson resumed his public schedule in Kenya. Trump mostly tweeted.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo appeared on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” where he was asked about the situation with North Korea and upcoming negotiations.
CBS’ MARGARET BRENNAN: Tillerson said this will be done through him. Is that still the plan?
POMPEO: This is a level of discussion the president is going to drive this effort this negotiation, but it will take a team to build out the picture so that we put the president in the best position so that he can achieve that outcome.
BRENNAN: Because it’s unclear, though, if it’s the State Department or your agency that will take the lead. It was your counterpart from South Korea who was at the White House this week.
POMPEO: I don’t think there’s any doubt about who’s going to take the lead on this. The president of the United States is going to take the lead.
Monday, March 12
British Prime Minister Theresa May, speaking from Parliament, made a remarkable announcement. The poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the U.K. earlier this month was undertaken with a nerve agent produced by the Russian government. The implication was either that Russia had lost control of that toxin, she said, or that the Russian government had a hand in the attack.
Tillerson had begun his flight back to the United States, cutting his trip short, he told reporters, because he wasn’t feeling well. In a break from past practice, he spoke to the press on the record, including about the incident in the U.K.
The attack on the spy, Sergei Skripal, which left him and his daughter in critical condition, “clearly came from Russia,” Tillerson said, given how difficult the toxin was to obtain. The attack was a “really egregious act” that would “certainly trigger a response.”
“What we’ve seen is a pivot on their part to be more aggressive,” he said. “And this is very, very concerning to me and others that there seems to be a certain unleashing of activity that we don’t fully understand what the objective behind that is.”
Asked about May’s comments during the daily White House news briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to point the finger at Russia.
“I think [the British are] still working through even some of the details of that,” she said.
Tuesday, March 13
Tillerson arrives back in the United States at 4 a.m. A few hours later, The Post breaks the story about Tillerson being replaced with Pompeo.
Trump confirms the move in a tweet:
“Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!”
State Department Undersecretary Steve Goldstein told CNN that the tweet was the first point at which Tillerson knew he’d been fired, though the New York Times reports that Tillerson found out “before dawn.” The department had already released a statement suggesting that Tillerson’s departure was not mutually agreed upon.
“The Secretary had every intention of staying, because of critical progress made in national security,” that statement read. “He will miss his colleagues at the Department of State and the foreign ministers that he’s worked with throughout the world.”
The secretary, the statement added, “did not speak to the president and is unaware of the reason” for the firing.
Trump was asked about his decision during a brief news conference. “Mr. President,” one reporter asked, “what did you say to Rex Tillerson?”
“Rex and I have been talking about this for a long time,” Trump said, not indicating that any of those conversations had occurred recently. “We got along, actually, quite well, but we disagreed on things. . . . We were not really thinking the same. With Mike, Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process. I think it’s going to go very well.”
Trump said he made the decision to meet with North Korea “by myself,” noting that Tillerson “wasn’t in this country.”
Trump was also asked about May’s remarks in the U.K. He said he’d be speaking with the prime minister later in the day.
“As soon as we the facts straight,” Trump said, “and we’re going to be speaking with the British today; we’re going to be 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.”
He then praised the decision by the Republican majority on the House Intelligence Committee to exonerate him on questions of collusion during the 2016 presidential campaign.
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