U.S. President Donald Trump within the next several weeks could name Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, according to media reports quoting senior administration officials on Thursday.
Several U.S. news outlets reported that the shakeup of Trump's top national security team has been under consideration for some time now, although it was not clear that Trump has made a decision.
In a brief exchange with reporters at the White House, Trump, when asked about Tillerson's fate, said, “He’s here. Rex is here.” The president made no other comments.
The White House downplayed the reports of Tillerson's departure.
“As the president just said, ‘Rex is here.’ White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. "There are no personnel announcements at this time. Secretary Tillerson continues to lead the State Department and the entire cabinet is focused on completing this incredibly successful first year of President Trump's administration.”
Reports say under the plan, Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a staunch ally of Trump on national security issues, would replace Pompeo as the CIA chief.
Tillerson's departure from the State Department would end a troubled tenure for the former ExxonMobil chief executive, who has clashed with Trump over dealing with the nuclear threat posed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Thomas Wright told VOA, “The Secretary of State is only influential if he is perceived as close to the president. Now that the White House has told multiple media outlets it intends to replace Rex Tillerson, he has been stripped of any power he enjoyed.”
But Tillerson has given no indication he plans to resign, saying in early October, "There has never been a consideration in my mind to leave. I serve at the appointment of the president and I am here for as long as the president feels I can be useful to achieving his objectives.”
Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he spoke with Tillerson on Thursday. "He's conducting business, as is the norm, and is unaware of anything changing,” Corker told reporters.
Trump routinely has disparaged Kim Jong Un as "Little Rocket Man" and threatened to unleash U.S. military power on North Korea if it attacks the U.S. or its allies. Months ago, Trump told Tillerson in a Twitter comment to stop wasting his time trying to negotiate with the Pyongyang dictator.
"Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!" Trump said.
At one point, the 65-year-old Tillerson was quoted as calling Trump a "moron" after a Pentagon meeting.
He did not deny making the disparaging assessment of the U.S. leader's intellect, instead deflecting questions about the story, saying it was part of Washington political games. “I’m not going to deal with that petty stuff," he said.
Pompeo, a 53-year-old former three-term congressman from the Midwestern state of Kansas, apparently has won Trump's favor while giving him the CIA's daily intelligence briefings in person at the White House, rather than delegating that responsibility to a staff aide.
Senator Cotton is a staunchly conservative lawmaker who has often voiced support for Trump's policies. He has signaled that he would take the job as CIA director if Trump offers it.