Trump may have fired Rex Tillerson because they couldn't agree on North Korea

  • White House officials say the biggest factor in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's ouster was his views on North Korea.
  • Sources say Tillerson's policy of dialogue over a more hardline approach had conflicted with President Donald Trump's strategy.
  • CIA director Mike Pompeo, Trump's proposed replacement for Tillerson, appears to be on the same wavelength as Trump on the subject of US-North Korean relations.


White House officials say the biggest factor in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's ouster on Tuesday was his views on North Korea, which often conflicted with President Donald Trump's strategy, according to a CNN report.

One day after Trump accepted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's invitation to meet, Tillerson was woken up in his hotel room by a phone call from White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, sources said in the report. Kelly then reportedly informed Tillerson that his tenure as secretary was coming to a close.

Just hours before Trump had made his decision to accept Kim's invitation, Tillerson said the US was still "a long ways from negotiations."

Though the mixed messages may not have been the last straw for Tillerson's tenure, his dovish approach in dealing with North Korea had reportedly derailed Trump's track to enact "maximum pressure" on the regime.

Tillerson, who opposed a "regime change" and an "accelerated reunification of the peninsula," advocated for diplomatic avenues to mitigate the verbal volleys between the White House and North Korea.

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Rex Tillerson through his career
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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)

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson bids farewell to Chad's Foreign Minister Mahamat Zene Cherif as he departs N'Djamena, Chad, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tours an anti-poaching forensic lab at the Kenya Wildlife Service in Nairobi, Kenya, March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh at the Presidential Palace in Djibouti, March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson boards his plane to depart Addis Ababa International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gestures during a news conference at the governmental palace in Beirut, Lebanon, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson look at a picture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, as they arrive to a meeting in Ankara, Turkey, February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Cem Ozdel/Pool
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"Let's just meet — we can talk about the weather if you want," Tillerson said in December. "We can talk about whether it's going to be a square table or a round table if that's what you're excited about. But can we at least sit down and see each other face to face."

Meanwhile, Trump continued to rail against North Korea in various speeches and tweets. At one point, Trump appeared to deride Tillerson over his diplomatic approach.

"I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man...," Trump said, referring to a nickname for Kim, on Twitter in October.

CIA director Mike Pompeo, Trump's proposed replacement for Tillerson, has retained stronger ties to the White House than his predecessor, particularly on North Korean relations. Pompeo's strategy on North Korea appears to be on the same wavelength and has better mimicked the Trump administration than Tillerson's.

"We do believe that Kim Jong Un, given these toolsets, will use them for things besides simply regime protection and that is to put pressure on what is his ultimate goal, which is reunification of the peninsula under his authority," Pompeo said in January.

Other intelligence officials agreed that Pompeo's views on North Korea aligned with Trump's.

"I think it's pretty clear that Mike Pompeo is on the same page, philosophically, with President Trump," former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said to CNN on Tuesday.

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