US President Donald Trump has addressed US news media reports on the imminent departure of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state without clearly confirming or denying them.
The rumours, which had been present for months, grew louder when the New York Times newspaper reported, citing senior administration officials, on Thursday that Trump intended to replace Tillerson with Mike Pompeo, the CIA chief, in the coming months.
“He’s here. Rex is here,” Trump said in the Oval Office of the White House on Thursday.
In a statement, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said: “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.”
Tillerson, a former executive for the energy company Exxon, took office on February 1.
Trump and Tillerson are believed to have disagreed on a number of foreign policy issues, including the regional blockade of Qatar.
Pompeo, a former Congressman from Kansas, is a controversial figure. He told Congress in 2013 that the silence from Muslim leaders on acts of violence committed by violent “extremists” was “deafening”.
“Instead of responding, silence has made these Islamic leaders across America potentially complicit in these acts, and more importantly still, in those that may well follow,” Pompeo said.
The reports came a day after Trump retweeted a series of videos deemed Islamophobic from UK-based Britain First, a far-right nationalist group.
Britain First has held “Christian patrols” in predominantly Muslim areas of UK cities.
Jayda Fransen, the group’s deputy leader, has been convicted of religiously aggravated harassment for accosting a British Muslim mother of four for wearing a hijab.
“I think the world has come to expect a certain level of anti-immigrant and Islamophobic tint from this administration. Pompeo in the state department would continue this trend,” Corey Saylor, the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ chief Islamophobia expert, told Al Jazeera on Thursday.
Regarding Pompeo’s rumoured move from the CIA to the state department, Saylor said: “each position gives him different ways to advance the administration’s troublesome agenda”.
Saylor pointed to previous actions by Pompeo, including his retweeting of a blog post that called Raj Goyle, a former political opponent of Indian descent, a “turban topper”. Pompeo later apologised for the retweet.
Pompeo’s campaign later used a hoarding encouraging voters to “Vote American” by voting for Pompeo over Goyle.
Saylor said these actions could have a negative impact on his tentative role as secretary of state, the highest diplomatic position in the US government.
“When you’re trying to negotiate with countries that are our allies, with the type of background and things he’s said in the past, I think that starts things off on a completely different level than those who have been able to separate violent extremism from the religion of Islam,” Saylor concluded.