US President Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday after months of friction and replaced him with hawkish CIA director Mike Pompeo.
In an impromptu press conference on the White House lawn, Trump told reporters there was a “chemistry” problem between him and Tillerson.
“It was different mindset. It was a different thinking,” Trump said, adding: “I think Rex will be much happier now.”
A senior White House official said Trump wanted to orchestrate a change to his national security team ahead of planned high-stakes talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Tillerson, the chief executive of energy company ExxonMobil for a decade before joining the administration, has long been dogged by reports that his time in office would be cut short.
His tenure as secretary of state was one of the shortest in US history.
A State Department official initially said Tillerson had not spoken to Trump and was in the dark as to why he was ousted.
The offical, Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein, whose description of events apparently differed from the White House, was subsequently fired later in the day.
In a short farewell speech delivered at the State Department, Tillerson said that Trump had phoned him from Air Force One around midday.
Trump frequently cast Tillerson as weak and clueless. Their long-simmering tensions erupted into the public in October, after Tillerson suggested the US could engage in talks with North Korea.
Trump tweeted on October 1 that Tillerson was “wasting his time” and added: “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!’
Days later, NBC News reported that Tillerson had called the president a “moron” after a July meeting at the Pentagon with members of Trump’s national security team and Cabinet officials.
Tillerson never denied using the description, but said he would not be part of any effort to divide the administration.
Trump then challenged his top diplomat “to compare IQ tests” in a interview with Forbes magazine.
The 65-year-old Tillerson was at odds with a number of Trump’s policies. For example, he favoured the US remaining in the Paris climate accord and has been less harsh towards Iran on questions relating to a deal to keep it from attaining nuclear weapons.
Tillerson arrived back from a four-nation tour of Africa early Tuesday. The trip was cut short by a day, a schedule change Tillerson had said was due to the developments with North Korea.
Pompeo, 54, is an avowed opponent of the Iran nuclear deal and Tea Party conservative, who used to represent Kansas in the US Congress.
Iran’s nuclear deal with six world powers was agreed to in 2015 and meant to constrain Tehran’s ability to make nuclear weapons for at least 15 years.
Pompeo’s new role comes less than a week after media reports that Trump had told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the US would withdraw from the Iran deal if its European co-signatories did not agree to his preferred modifications.
Trump has pledged to pull the US out of the deal if substantial changes are not made by May 12.
“If confirmed, I look forward to guiding the world’s finest diplomatic corps in formulating and executing the President’s foreign policy,” Pompeo said in a statement.
Trump also announced that CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel, a 30-year agency veteran, is in line to become the next CIA director, which would make her the first woman to hold that job.
Haspel is a former CIA undercover officer who oversaw a secret detention site in Thailand where suspected terrorists were subjected to harsh interrogation that critics said were tantamount to torture.
One detainee held at the site was subjected to waterboarding 83 times, according to the New York Times. Haspel went on to play a prominent role deciding to destroy video recordings of interrogations.
Both Haspel and Pompeo must be confirmed by the Senate, where Republicans hold 51 of the 100 seats. Hearings are expected to begin in April, said Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.