SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
The firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson played out in dramatic fashion today. President Trump announced it this morning in a tweet saying he had chosen a replacement - CIA Director Mike Pompeo. At noon he spoke with Tillerson from Air Force One, and this afternoon Tillerson appeared at the State Department to say his last day on the job would be March 31.
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REX TILLERSON: Between now and then, I will address a few administrative matters related to my departure and work towards a smooth and orderly transition for secretary of state designate Mike Pompeo.
MCCAMMON: NPR's Michele Kelemen has been at the State Department all day and was in the room when Tillerson spoke. Hi, Michele.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi, Sarah.
MCCAMMON: So, Michele, what else did Tillerson say?
KELEMEN: Well, as you can hear, he sounded really shaken by the whole thing. He's putting his deputy in charge as of midnight tonight - in charge of the State Department while he does administrative work. He said the president called him at noon to inform him. That's well after the tweet. And other than that, Tillerson made absolutely no mention of Trump. Just listen to how he talked about how he viewed his job.
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TILLERSON: To my Foreign Service officers and civil service colleagues, we all took the same oath of office. Whether you're a career employee or a political appointee, we are all bound by that common commitment - to support and defend the Constitution, to bear true faith and allegiance to the same, and to faithfully discharge the duties of our office.
KELEMEN: So he talked about defending the Constitution. He talked about his close relationship with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. They've always been seen as sort of the adults in the room in this administration, calming the president's more impulsive foreign policy pronouncements. And, you know, he said that in most people's memory, this is the first time State and Defense Department have really been working so closely. And they all agree that U.S. leadership starts with diplomacy.
MCCAMMON: What is the mood like there at the State Department? What are people saying?
KELEMEN: Well, some people were surprised mostly by the timing because Tillerson had just come back this morning from a trip to Africa. But this has been a possibility hanging over his head for months. Morale's been low under Tillerson. There's been an exodus of longtime Foreign Service officers under him. So it's not clear that he'll really be missed very much here.
MCCAMMON: And what does Tillerson's departure mean for what the State Department does day to day, diplomacy?
KELEMEN: Well, there's - for instance, on Iran this week, I'm told that Tillerson's aide, Brian Hook, is still planning to go to Berlin and Vienna. There are meetings on the future of the Iran nuclear deal. That's been something that Trump said he disagreed on with Tillerson about that. And the fact that he's named Mike Pompeo, the former CIA - the CIA director who's much more hawkish on Iran to replace him, that's sort of going to be hanging over those meetings. And then of course we're going to have to deal with North Korea.
MCCAMMON: Right. Those talks could come in May - right, Michele?
KELEMEN: That's correct. You know, the - President Trump actually agreed to those talks while Tillerson was away. The White House is saying it's not necessarily a deadline, but that's what they're going to aim for is May. And a longtime diplomat I talked to today who's worked on Asia thinks actually that having a spy chief in the lead of talks might be a good idea because North Korea understands and respects the job of a spy chief. That would be Mike Pompeo.
MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen speaking to us from the State Department. Thank you.
KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.