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Trump's Cabinet Shuffle


California, a state that President Trump is visiting as we speak. He is waking up here on the west coast facing a political blow after a special congressional election in Pennsylvania. The president campaigned for Republican candidate Rick Saccone over the weekend. But this morning, the Democrat, Conor Lamb, is declaring victory, although we should say the vote is still too close to definitively call. Meanwhile, the president decided to announce a big shake-up on his foreign policy team just before heading here to California. We have NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith with us.

Hi, Tam.


GREENE: So I guess the president's waking up and following those results still coming in from Pennsylvania - what? - hoping that the tide turns, keeping an eye on it.

KEITH: Yeah. And either way, if it is a very narrow Lamb win or a very narrow Rick Saccone win - Saccone is the Republican - then that is a dramatic turn from how President Trump performed in that very district. And he visited that district twice in the past two months to try to give a boost to Saccone's candidacy. And in the end, it's too close to call. Thus far, the president has not yet tweeted. And he also hasn't deleted any tweets, which is something that he did in the past when his chosen candidate lost.

GREENE: And this is not just any district. This is a district that speaks to how he pulled off this victory in 2016, I mean, a place where there are a lot of Democratic voters, a lot of economic anxiety. And people in an important district like this really turned in favor of the president, helped him come to the White House.

KEITH: Right. But it's a very interesting district that also has suburbs where there has been, in this year and in the last year, a real backlash against President Trump. And then it also has sort of traditional what you would call Trump country. And you see the difference in the enthusiasm between those parts of the district.

GREENE: Well, let's move on to the other news, all these hirings and firings this week. So we have Secretary of State Rex Tillerson fired on Twitter yesterday, at least that's how it was announced to all of us. What is the timeline now for him to be replaced at the State Department?

KEITH: So President Trump has picked CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him. Senator Bob Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says he's planning a confirmation hearing in April. Pompeo was confirmed before and comfortably so, but he can expect to get some tough questions in this confirmation hearing about everything from the Iran nuclear deal to Russian interference in the presidential election.

And then Gina Haspel is the person who has been named to replace Pompeo as CIA director. She is a career CIA professional. However, she could have some trouble with her confirmation because she oversaw a secret CIA prison in Thailand where detainees were subject to what is sometimes called enhanced interrogation techniques, what many call torture. She does have support inside the intelligence community though because she is someone who comes from inside.

GREENE: I just, you know, we can't forget the moment this is for a big change in the president's foreign policy team. The nation's top diplomat is going to be a different face at this moment we have this big summit coming up between President Trump and the leader of North Korea.

KEITH: That's right. And that is why President Trump, according to the White House, that's why he made this move now because he wanted to have his team, a team in place that he wanted at this critical time. I asked the White House if they're worried about a holdup with the confirmation. You know, South Korea has said that the meeting was to take place in May. They say they aren't worried about it - the White House does - because Pompeo is already inside the administration, and he can work on these matters while awaiting confirmation. And they also say that that May thing may not be the real date, that they have not yet committed to a time or place.

GREENE: Tam, what about the president's personal assistant, John McEntee? He left the White House abruptly. This was news this week. And some conflicting stories about what actually went on.

KEITH: Yeah. And we do not have a solid read on why he left, but he did leave abruptly and then suddenly showed up at the Trump 2020 campaign. But he is just the latest close Trump aide to depart this White House under a cloud. You know, the House Oversight Committee is investigating how this White House has dealt with security clearance issues. And both the top Democrat and Republican on that committee say that the White House response thus far has been, quote, "inadequate."

GREENE: More departures coming maybe?

KEITH: Well, the endangered species list of top aides and Cabinet members is long. And it's not even clear that Tillerson was at the top of that list. There are a bunch of aides and Cabinet members who President Trump seems to be not so happy with.

GREENE: All right. We'll see if there's more change coming. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.