President Donald Trump’s dramatic firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson came a day after the nation’s top diplomat diverged from the White House by explicitly blaming Russia for the murder of a Russian spy in Britain.
Tillerson has clashed with Trump on a range of diplomatic issues, and appears to have been entirely out of the loop on Trump’s stunning decision to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, and didn’t directly deny having called Trump a moron.
But his firing came just hours after he revealed another split with the White House – with Tillerson forcefully blaming Russia for being behind the poison attack on Russian spy Sergei Skripal, who is now a British citizen.
Skripal was found slumped over on a park bench along with his daughter in London following what authorities concluded was a poison attack.
‘Much work remains to respond to the troubling behavior and actions on the part of the Russian government,’ Tillerson said in his farewell statement at the State Department just hours after Trump announced his firing on Twitter.
British Prime Minister Theresa May had said it was ‘highly likely’ Russia was behind the attack, which relied on a chemical weapon made in Russia.
Her statement Monday led to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders being questioned about whether she agrees with the British determination.
‘The use of a highly lethal nerve agent against UK citizens on UK soil is an outrage. The attack was reckless, indiscriminate, and irresponsible,’ said Sanders, who condemned the attack without naming a perpetrator.
But she refused to name Russia as the perpeterator.
‘Right now, we are standing with our UK ally. I think they’re still working through even some of the details of that,’ Sanders said.
By contrast, Tillerson – in what would become his final break with the White House– blasted Russia as an ”irresponsible force of instability in the world.’
Russian President Vladimir Putin smirked when asked if Russia was behind the attack. ‘Look, we’re busy here with agriculture. As you can see, the aim is to create good conditions for people’s lives. And you ask me about some tragedies,’ he told BBC
‘RECKLESS’: White House press secretary Sarah Sanders condemned as ‘reckless’ the killing of a former Russian spy living in Britain
Victim: Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in a pizza restaurant in Salisbury, in south-west England and Rex Tillerson publicly blamed Vladimir Putin’s Russia for the attack on Monday, something the White House had pointedly not done
‘We have full confidence in the UK’s investigation and its assessment that Russia was likely responsible for the nerve agent attack that took place in Salisbury last week,’ Tillerson said Monday.
He continued: ‘There is never a justification for this type of attack, the attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation, and we are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behavior.
‘Russia continues to be an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens,’ Tillerson said.
He said hose responsible ‘must face appropriately serious consequences.’
President Trump asked about the issue on Tuesday following his firing of Tillerson, said: ‘As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.’
Trump used twitter to terminate the career of Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil boss who had been secretary of state for 15 months. An official revealed the president did not speak to Tillerson
Trump hedged, saying: ‘It sounds to me like it would be Russia based on all of the evidence they have. I don’t know if they’ve come to a conclusion,’ he said.
Trump’s statement was much less definitive than May, who told parliament: ‘Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country.’
‘Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others,’ she added.
Trump characterized he and Tillerson as being of a ‘different mindset,’ although on other occasions he has said he likes getting advice from competing forces. He didnt’ mention Russia as being part of his decision.
‘No, I really didn’t discuss it very much with him, honestly. I made that decision by myself. Rex wasn’t, as you know, in this country. I made the North Korea decision with consultation from many people but I made that decision by myself,’ Trump said.
OVERBOOKED? According to one account, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly called Tillerson and urged him to return home from a trip to Africa
‘I actually got along well with Rex but really it was a different mindset, a different thinking.’
The White House released an official statement Tuesday on a call between Trump and May.
According to the statement: ‘They discussed the United Kingdom’s investigation into the chemical weapon attack on a private citizen and his daughter on British soil. President Trump stated the United States stands in solidarity with its closest ally and is ready to provide any assistance the United Kingdom requests for its investigation.’
The statement added: ‘President Trump agreed with Prime Minister May that the Government of the Russian Federation must provide unambiguous answers regarding how this chemical weapon, developed in Russia, came to be used in the United Kingdom. The two leaders agreed on the need for consequences for those who use these heinous weapons in flagrant violation of international norms.’
There were differing accounts Tuesday of when it was conveyed to Tillerson that he was getting fired, including whether it happened before or after Tillerson’s tough-on-Russia comments.
According to the Washington Post, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly called Tillerson, who was on travel in Africa early Saturday local time to tell him Trump had decided to replace him, and urged him to return to Washington as soon as possible.
But the lead Post reported on the story tweeted that a White House official told Tillerson Friday that his ‘days were numbered.’
‘But it is still highly possible that Tillerson officially learned he was fired from news reports and Trump’s Tweet this morning,’ the Post’s Ashley Parker wrote.
NBC reported that Tillerson found out he was out from Trump’s Tuesday tweet, and was not planning to quit.
Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein said in an on-record statement Tuesday that Tillerson found out he was fired Tuesday.
‘The secretary did not speak to the president this morning and is unaware of the reason, but he is grateful for the opportunity to serve, and still believes strongly that public service is a noble calling and not to be regretted.’
After publication of his statement, Goldstein was summarily fired.
‘I think Rex will be much happier now,’ Trump Tuesday morning about his decision, where he cited differences on the Iran deal.