WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has declared he never considered resigning as President Donald Trump’s top diplomat, disputing what he called an “erroneous” report that he wanted to step down earlier this year. After pointedly refusing to answer whether he once called the president a “moron,” Tillerson had a spokeswoman deny he used such language.
Thrust into the spotlight under uncomfortable circumstances, the normally camera-shy Tillerson sought to rebut a widely disseminated NBC News story that claimed Vice President Mike Pence had to talk the former oil man out of resigning over the summer, and that Tillerson had questioned Trump’s intelligence. The explosive claims followed several instances in which Trump’s and Tillerson’s policy pronouncements have appeared to clash.
“There has never been a consideration in my mind to leave,” Tillerson told reporters Wednesday in an unusually personal address from the State Department’s staid 7th-floor Treaty Room outside of his office.
Trump tweeted Thursday that Tillerson “never threatened to resign.” Trump added: “This is Fake News put out by (at)NBCNews. Low news and reporting standards. No verification from me.”
He said Wednesday in Las Vegas, where he traveled to meet with medical personnel and others affected by the mass shooting there, that he has “total confidence” in Tillerson.
Trump’s administration already has seen an unprecedented wave of departures, including a chief of staff, a national security adviser and a Cabinet secretary. However, his core national security team — Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and his second national security adviser, H.R. McMaster — has been viewed by Republicans and even many Democrats as a pillar of stability in an otherwise chaotic government.
Even so, Trump has at times appeared to undercut Tillerson’s message on some of America’s most sensitive national security challenges, including Iran and North Korea. Tillerson also has publicly complained about the White House blocking him from making key appointments.
Sen. Bob Corker, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, said Tillerson hasn’t been sufficiently supported and “is in an incredibly frustrating place.” The Republican senator, who has criticized Trump’s leadership, offered a stark assessment: Tillerson, Mattis and White House chief of staff John Kelly are “those people that help separate our country from chaos.”
While praising Trump’s foreign policy on Wednesday, Tillerson raised eyebrows by pointedly declining to deny he had called the president a “moron” after a contentious meeting at the Pentagon in July.
“I’m not going to deal with petty stuff like that,” the former Exxon Mobil CEO said. “I mean, this is what I don’t understand about Washington. Again, I’m not from this place, but the places I come from, we don’t deal with that kind of petty nonsense.”
“Let me tell you what I’ve learned about this president, whom I did not know before taking this office,” Tillerson said. “He loves his country. He puts Americans and America first. He’s smart. He demands results wherever he goes, and he holds those around him accountable for whether they’ve done the job he’s asked them to do.”
Later, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert flatly denied that Tillerson called Trump a moron. She said Tillerson hasn’t said sorry to Trump, as no apology was needed.