White House has plan to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA chief, U.S. official says

WASHINGTON, Nov 30 (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump is considering a plan to oust Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has had a strained relationship with his boss over North Korea and other issues, senior administration officials said on Thursday.

Tillerson would be replaced by CIA director Mike Pompeo, known as a Trump loyalist, within weeks under a White House plan to carry out the most significant staff shakeup so far of the Trump administration.

SEE ALSO: Trump's co-author: White House now 'deeply concerned about his mental health'

Republican Senator Tom Cotton would be tapped to replace Pompeo at the Central Intelligence Agency, the officials told Reuters.

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Rex Tillerson through his career

Exxon Mobil Corporation Chairman and Chief Executive Rex Tillerson speaks at a news conference following the Exxon Mobil annual shareholders meeting in Dallas, Texas May 30, 2007. Tillerson told reporters on Wednesday that the construction of the Mackenzie pipeline project in Canada was not viable at current cost levels.

(REUTERS/Mike Stone)

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) and Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson look on at a signing ceremony in the Black Sea resort of Sochi August 30, 2011. Exxon and Russia's Rosneft signed a deal on Tuesday to develop oil and gas reserves in the Russian Arctic, opening up one of the last unconquered drilling frontiers to the global industry No.1.

(REUTERS/Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Pool)

Executives from six major oil companies are sworn in to testify at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on the "Consolidation in the Oil and Gas Industry: Raising Prices?" on Capitol Hill in Washington March 14, 2006. The executives are (L-R) Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil Corp., James Mulva, Chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips, David O'Reilly, Chairman and CEO of Chevron Corp., Bill Klesse, CEO of Valero Energy Corp., John Hofmeister, President of Shell Oil Company and Ross Pillari, President and CEO of BP America Inc.

(Jason Reed / Reuters)

ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, Texas April 21, 2015.

(REUTERS/Daniel Kramer/File Photo)

Chairman, President and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation Rex Tillerson watches a tee shot on the 13th hole during the first round of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament at the Monterey Peninsula Country Club course in Pebble Beach, California, February 6, 2014.

(REUTERS/Michael Fiala)

Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil; John Watson, chairman and CEO of Chevron Corp.; James Mulva, chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips; Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil Co.; and Lamar McKay, president and chairman of BP America Inc.; are sworn in during the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Environment hearing on their safety practices as oil continues to leak into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig - operated by BP - exploded last month.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, Texas April 21, 2015.

(REUTERS/Daniel Kramer/File Photo)

WASHINGTON, DC - May 12: James Mulva, chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips; and Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp.; during the Senate Finance hearing on oil and gas tax incentives.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

Chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation Rex W. Tillerson and Norway Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg attends the United Nations Foundation's global leadership dinner at The Pierre Hotel on November 8, 2011 in New York City.

(Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images)

Rex Tillerson, chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp., left, speaks with Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates Inc., during the 2015 IHS CERAWeek conference in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Tuesday, April 21, 2015. CERAWeek 2015, in its 34th year, will provide new insights and critically-important dialogue with decision-makers in the oil and gas, electric power, coal, renewables, and nuclear sectors from around the world.

(Photographer: F. Carter Smith/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Renda St. Clair and Rex Tillerson attend the reopening celebration at Ford's Theatre on February 11, 2009 in Washington, DC.

(Photo by Abby Brack/Getty Images)

Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, listens during a meeting at the Department of the Interior September 22, 2010 in Washington, DC. Secretary of the Interior Kenneth L. Salazar hosted Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Gulf Oil Spill National Incident Commander Adm. Thad Allen (Ret.), representatives from the private sector and others to discus strengthening the containment abilities to deep water oil and gas well blowouts like the recent BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

(Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

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It was not immediately clear whether Trump had given final approval to the latest staff shakeup, but one of the officials said the president asked for the plan to be put together.

Tillerson's long-rumored departure would end a troubled tenure for the former Exxon Mobil Corp chief executive who has been increasingly at odds with Trump over policy challenges such as North Korea and under fire for his planned cuts at the State Department.

Tillerson was reported in October to have privately called Trump a "moron," something which the secretary of state sought to dismiss.

That followed a tweet by Trump a few days earlier that Tillerson should not waste his time by seeking negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear and missile program.

Trump asked John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, to develop the transition strategy and it has already been discussed with other officials, one administration source said.

Under the plan, which was first reported by the New York Times, the staff reshuffle would happen around the end of the year or shortly afterward.

Asked if he wanted Tillerson to remain in his job, Trump sidestepped the question on Thursday, telling reporters at the White House: "He's here. Rex is here."

"There are no personnel announcements at this time," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders later told reporters.

Tillerson's departure has been widely rumored for months, with attention focused on Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as his likely replacement.

But Pompeo, a former member of Congress, has increasingly moved to the forefront as he has gained Trump's trust on national security matters.

Tillerson, 65, has spent much of his tenure trying to smooth the rough edges of Trump's unilateralist "America First" foreign policy, with limited success. On several occasions, the U.S. president publicly undercut his diplomatic initiatives.

A source familiar with Tillerson’s thinking said Tillerson’s original plan when he took the job as top U.S. diplomat, was to leave in February.

“His plan was to make it a year and then find a reason to leave. Who knows if that still holds?” the source said.

Senator Bob Corker, a senior voice in U.S. foreign policy, spoke to Tillerson on Thursday and said the secretary of state was unaware of any plans to oust him.

If carried out, the staff changes would be the latest in a string of departures and firings in Trump's administration in recent months, including his chief of staff, national security advisor and FBI director.

“There’s so much churn. It feels like whiplash,” a State Department official said.

FOREIGN POLICY HARDLINER

Pompeo, a foreign policy hardliner, especially on Iran, has publicly talked about how the spy agency is becoming more aggressive and how he has been focusing on deploying more CIA officers overseas.

Pompeo has offered effusive praise for Trump in interviews and speeches despite the president’s public criticism of U.S. intelligence agencies and his dismissal of the finding by some of them that Russia conducted an influence campaign to boost Trump over his rival, Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 election.

Pompeo also has downplayed the extent of Russia’s intervention, saying that Moscow has sought to influence U.S. elections for decades.

While Trump has expressed deep skepticism of the U.S. intelligence community -- he once compared its behavior to that of Nazi Germany -- Pompeo has called the president an “avid consumer” of intelligence who is grateful to intelligence professionals.

Tillerson has at times put distance between himself and Trump's positions.

He joined Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in pressing a skeptical Trump not to pull the United States out of an agreement with Iran and world powers over Tehran's nuclear capabilities.

Tillerson has taken a more hawkish view than Trump on Russia and tried to mediate a dispute among key U.S. Mideast allies, after four Arab nations launched a boycott of Qatar over its alleged Islamist extremist ties.

In late September, while on a trip to Beijing, Tillerson said that Washington was probing North Korea to see whether it is interested in dialog, and had multiple direct channels of communication with Pyongyang.

The next day, Trump appeared to dismiss those efforts in a tweet, telling Tillerson that he was "wasting his time" trying to negotiate with North Korea.

Tensions have also run high between Tillerson and veteran diplomats who oppose his proposed staff and budget cuts.

His tenure has coincided with the departure of dozens of veteran foreign policy hands, and many of the State Department's senior policy making positions remain unfilled. 

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