Report Says Tillerson Reportedly Called Trump A “Moron,” Considered Resigning
Tensions continue to rise between the White House and Foggy Bottom.
As I noted yesterday, President Trump appeared to throw his own Secretary of State under the bus over the weekend when he essentially called Rex Tillerson’s efforts to utilize diplomacy to resolve the standoff with North Korea over that country’s nuclear weapons program a waste of time. As I noted at the time, it wasn’t the first time that we’ve seen the apparent tension between the President and the Secretary of State. In fact, there have been numerous reports regarding the same between the White House and the State Department over issues ranging from the apparent freelancing on Middle East policy from the likes of Jared Kushner to questions regarding Tillerson’s authority over State Department hiring early in the Administration. This morning, NBC News ran with a new, explosive, report indicating that Tillerson recently had to be persuaded to by the Vice-President not to resign and that he had at least once openly derided the President in front of others:
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was on the verge of resigning this past summer amid mounting policy disputes and clashes with the White House, according to senior administration officials who were aware of the situation at the time.
The tensions came to a head around the time President Donald Trump delivered a politicized speech in late July to the Boy Scouts of America, an organization Tillerson once led, the officials said.
Just days earlier, Tillerson had openly disparaged the president, referring to him as a “moron,” after a July 20 meeting at the Pentagon with members of Trump’s national security team and Cabinet officials, according to three officials familiar with the incident.
While it’s unclear if he was aware of the incident at the Pentagon, officials said Vice President Mike Pence counseled Tillerson, who is fourth in line to the presidency, on ways to ease tensions with Trump, and other top administration officials urged him to remain in the job at least until the end of the year.
Officials said that the administration, beset then by a series of high-level firings and resignations, would have struggled to manage the fallout from a Cabinet secretary of his stature departing within the first year of Trump’s presidency.
Pence has since spoken to Tillerson about being respectful of the president in meetings and in public, urging that any disagreements be sorted out privately, a White House official said. The official said progress has since been made.
Yet the disputes have not abated. This weekend, tensions spilled out into the open once again when the president seemed to publicly chide Tillerson on his handling of the crisis with North Korea.
NBC News spoke with a dozen current and former senior administration officials for this article, as well as others who are close to the president.
Tillerson, who was in Texas for his son’s wedding in late July when Trump addressed the Boy Scouts, had threatened not to return to Washington, according to three people with direct knowledge of the threats. His discussions with retired Gen. John Kelly, who would soon be named Trump’s second chief of staff, and Defense Secretary James Mattis, helped initially to reassure him, four people with direct knowledge of the exchanges said.
After Tillerson’s return to Washington, Pence arranged a meeting with him, according to three officials. During the meeting, Pence gave Tillerson a “pep talk,” one of these officials said, but also had a message: the secretary needed to figure out how to move forward within Trump’s policy framework.
Kelly and Mattis have been Tillerson’s strongest allies in the cabinet. In late July, “they did beg him to stay,” a senior administration official said. “They just wanted stability.”
At that time, however, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert responded to speculation that Tillerson was thinking about resigning by saying he was “committed to staying” and was “just taking a little time off” in Texas.
Tillerson’s top State Department spokesman, R.C. Hammond, said Tillerson did not consider quitting this past summer. He denied that Tillerson called Trump a “moron.” Hammond said he was unaware of the details of Tillerson’s meetings with Pence.
Hammond said he knew of only one time when the two men discussed topics other than policy: A meeting where Pence asked Tillerson if he thought Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was helpful to the administration, or if he was worried about the role she was playing. He added that whenever the vice president gives advice on how processes could run more smoothly, the advice is a good thing.
Hammond also said that he wouldn’t characterize the secretary’s conversations with Mattis or Kelly as attempts to convince Tillerson to stay in his position.
In a statement Wednesday, the vice president’s communications director, Jarrod Agen, said “any statements” that Pence “questioned Ambassador Nikki Haley’s value” to the administration are “categorically false.” He also said that, “at no time” did Pence and Tillerson “ever discuss the prospect of the Secretary’s resignation.”
A Pentagon official close to Mattis denied any awareness of a specific conversation about Tillerson’s future in the administration. But the official said the two men speak all the time and have a regular breakfast together.
The White House declined to comment on the record for this story.
This report led to an unusual early-morning appearance by Tillerson before reporters in which he, well, denied part of the report but not all of it:
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, in a hastily convened news conference on Wednesday, denied that he had ever considered resigning and dismissed an NBC News article reporting that he had called President Trump a “moron.”
Mr. Tillerson said that Vice President Mike Pence had never had to persuade him to remain as secretary of state, as the NBC News story had reported, “because I have never considered leaving this post.”
Mr. Tillerson refused to address whether he had called the president a “moron.”
“I’m not going to deal with petty stuff like that,” he said, his voice seeming to shake with anger. “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.”
Mr. Tillerson is a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil.
Mr. Tillerson’s tenure has been dogged for months by reports of a serious rift between himself and the president, rumors that have been fed by repeated Twitter posts by the president that criticize or undercut Mr. Tillerson’s positions.
But those rumors reached a fevered pitch on Wednesday with the NBC News story. While Mr. Tillerson has placidly declared before that he had no intention of leaving his post, he decided on Wednesday that he needed to meet the reports head-on.
“There has never been a consideration in my mind to leave,” Mr. Tillerson said. “I serve at the appointment of the president and I am here for as long as the president feels I can be useful to achieving his objectives.”
In his remarks, Mr. Tillerson gave a full-throated defense of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy, saying the president had created international unity around a campaign to pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons, persuaded NATO members to contribute more for their collective defense and was on the verge of defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Here’s video of Tillerson’s remarks
It’s worth noting that when asked directly, Tillerson did not deny referring to the President as a “moron” — indeed, one of the NBC reporters involved in the report said that the actual quote according to multiple sources was that Tilleron had referred to him as a “f**king moron — but instead effectively dodged the question and redirected his comments to a denial that he had to be convinced to stay on as Secretary of State. Nonetheless, as Daniel Larison notes, one wonders why Tillerson doesn’t just resign:
Tillerson’s frustrations are very understandable, and the cause of those frustrations isn’t going to go away. The problems plaguing U.S. foreign policy under Trump aren’t going to be solved with his resignation, but Tillerson’s problem of being routinely embarrassed and undermined would be. That makes it difficult to see what he hopes to accomplish by sticking around. Unlike Sessions, who seems to be willing to accept public humiliation by Trump as the price of getting to implement at least some of his desired agenda, Tillerson doesn’t appear to be getting anything for his trouble except more grief.
Dan DePetris notes in his semi-defense of the Secretary of State that no one else in that position in the last 25 years has been “subjected to such vitriol as Rex Tillerson in the first nine months of the job.” That much seems indisputable, which makes his determination to stay on in the job all the more puzzling. He reportedly didn’t want the job, he doesn’t really need the job, he can’t possibly be enjoying it, by most accounts he isn’t good at it, and the longer he stays the more humiliations he is likely to endure at the president’s hands. According to the report, Mattis and Kelly begged him to stay on when he was considering resignation this summer. Their appeals seem to have worked so far, but at some point they won’t be enough.
Given Trump’s open criticisms of him, it’s not surprising that TIllerson would be frustrated in his position and that he might be looking for a reason to move on. After all, given the fact that he earned quite a lot of money as CEO at ExxonMobil, it’s obvious that he doesn’t need the job and the frustration that quite obviously comes with it. Additionally, the fact that the White House seems intent on making end runs around him not only via the President’s tweets but also things such as the decision to utilize the President’s Son-In-Law Jared Kushner as some kind of roving Ambassador to take on the seemingly impossible task of negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the open speculation about a foreign policy amateur like Nikki Haley replacing him at Foggy Bottom, one half expects him to just walk out the door one day and never return. With this kind of disrespect being thrown his way on a regular basis, what’s the point of staying?