WASHINGTON (AFP/REUTERS) - US President Donald Trump on Thursday (Nov 30) passed up an opportunity to publicly back his embattled Secretary of State, fuelling rumours that Rex Tillerson may be on his way out the door.
Asked if he wants Tillerson to remain in his post, Trump said only that "Rex is here" at the White House, a break from the usual expression of confidence in such a circumstances.
A senior White House official did not deny reports that Tillerson would be replaced by CIA director Mike Pompeo - a rumour that has been circulating for weeks but which was firmly reported by the New York Times and other US media earlier on Thursday.
The newspaper quoted unnamed senior administration officials as saying Trump had soured on Tillerson and was ready for a change at the State Department, probably around the end of the year.
Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Tillerson was unaware of any ouster. "He's conducting business, as is the norm, and is unaware of anything changing," he told reporters.
The White House said Tillerson remained the US secretary of state.
“As the President just said, ‘Rex is here.’ There are no personnel announcements at this time. Secretary Tillerson continues to lead the State Department and the entire Cabinet is focused on completing this incredibly successful first year of President Trump’s administration,” said White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders in a statement.
Later, Sanders said there would be no change. “When the President loses confidence in someone, they will no longer serve here,” she said.
The State Department said Tillerson enjoyed his job and intended to stay on. Spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters that White House chief of staff John Kelly had called the State Department to assure officials that the reports that he was to be replaced were untrue.
Trump and Tillerson have aired striking differences in public. Trump surprised many observers when he tweeted that Tillerson was "wasting his time" pursuing contacts with North Korea, and Tillerson was quoted as having said that the President was a "moron".
The former ExxonMobil executive has also defended the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump last month disavowed.
It was not clear on Thursday whether the President had given final approval to the reported Cabinet changes.
The White House did not immediately respond to an AFP request for official comment.
Under the purported plan, Pompeo would be replaced at the Central Intelligence Agency by Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas and a hawk on Iran and an important Trump ally on national security issues.
A Cotton aide told AFP that, "Senator Cotton's focus is on serving Arkansans in the Senate". His departure would leave Republicans with another seat to defend, at a time when their Senate majority already in question.
Cotton won his seat easily in 2014, and is tipped as a future presidential contender, but Trump's unpopularity means Republicans can no longer assume victory in even deep red states.