Tillerson Says He’s Not Quitting After Report That He Called Trump a ‘Moron’

Updated on
  • Top U.S. diplomat says he ‘never considered’ quitting his job
  • Statement followed report Tillerson called Trump a ‘moron’

Tillerson Says 'Never Considered' Leaving This Post

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he’s “never considered” leaving his job, rejecting news reports that he had denigrated President Donald Trump and weighed resigning.

“My commitment to the success of the president and the country is as strong as it was the day I accepted his offer to serve as secretary of state,” Tillerson, 65, told reporters Wednesday at the State Department in Washington. “I have never considered leaving this post.”

The hastily called announcement followed a report earlier Wednesday by NBC News that Tillerson considered resigning over the summer and referred to the president as a “moron.” Asked to comment on that claim, Tillerson said “I’m not going to deal with petty stuff like that” and said “it is intended to do nothing but divide people.”

It fell to State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert to say Tillerson never used the term “moron.”

“The secretary did not use that type of language to speak about the president of the United States,” Nauert told reporters. “He did not say that.” She added that Tillerson and Trump spoke by phone Wednesday and “he told me it was a good conversation.”

Trump referred to the NBC report in a Twitter post minutes before Tillerson spoke, saying “NBC news is #FakeNews and more dishonest than even CNN. They are a disgrace to good reporting. No wonder their news ratings are way down!” After Tillerson finished speaking, Trump tweeted that the secretary of state had “totally refuted” the story and said NBC “should issue an apology to AMERICA!”

The president later said in Las Vegas that he has “total confidence” in Tillerson.

Almost since the beginning of his term as secretary in February, Tillerson, a former chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp., has been dogged by speculation that he was at odds with Trump or close to resigning. Aides at the State Department have repeatedly rejected the notion of discord between the president and his secretary of state, arguing that Trump appreciates Tillerson’s unvarnished advice and wants his advisers to air different views.

Follow the Trump Administration’s Every Move

‘America First’

In his remarks, Tillerson cited what he called the administration’s achievements to date, including generating “international unity” around the government’s “peaceful pressure” campaign against North Korea as well as efforts to get NATO allies to increase defense spending and success in confronting Islamic State.

The president “loves his country,” Tillerson said. “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.”

Support for Tillerson quickly came from Republican Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. “As a team, Tillerson, Mattis and Kelly help separate us from chaos, so I absolutely support him,” Corker told reporters, referring to Defense Secretary James Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.

But other analysts said Tillerson, who has struggled to get top jobs at the State Department filled and has overseen declining morale, should quit.

‘Public Disparagement’

“He cannot succeed in this job,” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said on Bloomberg Radio. “In part it’s because of this president and how he’s organized this administration, his own conduct with the tweeting, his public disparagement of the secretary of state like we saw the other day.”

Haas said Tillerson has made his situation worse by “not pressing for resources, by not pressing for staff.”

Tillerson also denied a claim in the NBC story that Vice President Mike Pence had to persuade him not to resign after the alleged “moron” comment. As Tillerson was speaking, his communications adviser R.C. Hammond apologized on Twitter for a portion of the story in which he was quoted saying Pence had asked Tillerson whether he thought Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was helpful to the administration. Pence’s office issued a statement calling the account “categorically false.”

‘Save Your Energy’

Tillerson and Trump have repeatedly contradicted each other publicly, most recently after the secretary of state’s trip to China to discuss North Korea last weekend. After meetings with Chinese officials, Tillerson told reporters in Beijing that the U.S. has sought to communicate directly with North Korea to ease tensions over that country’s accelerated weapons tests.

“We are probing, so stay tuned,” Tillerson said Saturday. “We can talk to them, we do talk to them directly, through our own channels,” adding that the U.S. has “a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang.”

But Trump pushed back even before Tillerson returned to the U.S., a highly unusual public rebuke of America’s top diplomat.

“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump posted Sunday on Twitter, using his pejorative nickname for Kim. “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”

The comments undermined Tillerson and damaged the U.S.’s ability to deal with Pyongyang, said Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.

The two have diverged other times as well. Tillerson and Trump appeared to disagree over the best way to resolve a Middle East crisis sparked when a bloc of nations led by Saudi Arabia cut off economic and transport links to Qatar. Both nations are key U.S. allies, with Qatar hosting a military base used by the Pentagon to target Islamic State.

Tillerson also seemed to signal his displeasure with the president after Trump’s widely criticized response to a neo-Nazi protest in August that led to a death in Charlottesville, Virginia. At the time, Tillerson said Trump “speaks for himself" and “we express America’s values from the State Department.”

— With assistance by Jennifer Epstein, Tom Keene, and Steven T. Dennis

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.