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President Donald Trump is contemplating replacing Rex Tillerson as secretary of state with Mike Pompeo, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, according to US media reports, because of the increasingly sour relationship between them.
The New York Times and Washington Post on Thursday said that John Kelly, White House chief of staff, had crafted a plan to oust Mr Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil chief executive, around the end of the year. Mr Trump did not refute the claims when asked by reporters at the White House.
“He’s here. Rex is here,” Mr Trump responded when pressed by reporters.
The reports follow months of speculation that Mr Tillerson would leave this year because of continual conflict with the White House and amid signs that his efforts to deal with Iran, North Korea and other issues were being undermined by Mr Trump. The reports said Mr Trump was considering replacing Mr Pompeo with Tom Cotton, a hardline Arkansas senator who has been a key supporter of the president in the Senate.
In October, Mr Tillerson came under pressure when NBC said he had referred to Mr Trump as a “moron” at a national security meeting. At a press conference, he denied he had contemplated resigning but did not deny making the disparaging comment.
He was forced to defend his position again the same month when Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate foreign affairs committee, said he had been “castrated” by Mr Trump. “I checked. I’m fully intact,” Mr Tillerson responded when asked on CNN whether he had been “gelded”.
There have been tensions between Mr Tillerson and Mr Trump since he assumed the role of the top diplomat in February. At one point when Mr Tillerson was in China dealing with the North Korea nuclear crisis, Mr Trump undermined his secretary of state by tweeting that he was “wasting his time” looking for a diplomatic solution. Mr Trump had also been very critical of efforts by Mr Tillerson to salvage the Iran nuclear deal.
Mr Tillerson has also faced problems nominating people for senior political positions at the state department. In February, Mr Trump rejected his choice of Elliott Abrams for deputy secretary of state, in an embarrassing setback for Mr Tillerson.
While some of the personnel gaps at the state department were due to differences with the White House, Mr Tillerson has come under criticism inside his agency for agreeing to aggressive budget cuts pushed by the White House and because of his own reluctance to hire senior staff for critical positions.
Writing in the New York Times this week, Nicholas Burns, a former number three state department official, and Ryan Crocker, a respected former ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, said the decision by Mr Tillerson to reduce the size of the foreign service by eight per cent was “particularly dangerous”.
Although North Korea is the most pressing foreign policy crisis for the administration, the state department does not have a permanent assistant secretary for East Asia and the White House has yet to nominate an ambassador to serve in South Korea.
Sarah Sanders, White House press secretary, also declined to defend Mr Tillerson, telling reporters that there were “no personnel announcements at this time”.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi