Tillerson Says He’s Never Considered Resigning, Calls Trump ‘Smart’
The secretary of state reaffirmed his commitment to “America First” policy but sidestepped questions about calling president a “moron.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called a rare press conference Wednesday to refute reports that he considered resigning this summer and had to be talked out of it by Vice President Mike Pence.
“I’ve never considered leaving this post,” Tillerson said, adding that Pence never had to convince him to stay.
But Tillerson didn’t squelch one part of the NBC report, published Wednesday morning: That he called U.S. President Donald Trump a “moron” at a July 20 Pentagon meeting on Afghanistan. (NBC later clarified that Tillerson called the president a “fucking moron.” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said Wednesday, “The secretary does not use that type of language. The secretary did not use that type of language to speak about the president of the United States.”)
“I’m not going to deal with petty stuff like that,” Tillerson said, when asked point-blank about the comment. He added that after joining the administration, he learned that Trump is “smart.”
The NBC report said that Tillerson had considered resigning around the time of Trump’s July 24 campaign speech to the Boy Scouts of America — in which the president crowed about crowd size and his electoral victory and said the scouts would be able to once again say “Merry Christmas” — but Pence counseled him on how to talk to the president. It was just the latest report suggesting that Tillerson, a former oil executive who admits he is unused to Washington, has grown frustrated with his role in the administration.
“We all knew that he was fed up, and it’s apparent through the way that he’s been running the department, but never thought it would get out like that,” one State Department official told Foreign Policy in response to the story.
Tillerson’s unusual appearance before the press sought to reaffirm his commitment to the administration’s foreign policy and came just days after Trump kneecapped the secretary of state’s efforts to find a diplomatic solution with North Korea via a series of weekend tweets.
On Wednesday, Tillerson said he supports Trump’s “America First” policy and said that Trump’s foreign-policy goals “break the mold of what people traditionally think is achievable on behalf of our country.” He rattled off a list of achievements from securing more Chinese cooperation on North Korea to advances against the Islamic State.
The Trump administration, Tillerson said, is “one team with one mission: doing great things for the United States of America to make America great again.”
The secretary of state said that he hadn’t talked with Trump before his impromptu press appearance called to bat down the NBC report. But within minutes of Tillerson’s appearance, Trump triumphantly tweeted, “The @NBCNews story has just been totally refuted by Sec. Tillerson and @VP Pence. It is #FakeNews. They should issue an apology to AMERICA!”
And efforts at damage control weren’t limited to Tillerson. The State Department’s top spokesman, R.C. Hammond, sought to walk back his own comments in the NBC piece. Hammond had described one meeting where Pence and Tillerson discussed something that wasn’t U.S. 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.”
Haley has been rumored as a possible successor as secretary of state, but she has rankled some in the administration by advocating traditional U.S. foreign-policy approaches to many issues.
On Wednesday, Hammond tweeted, “Regarding the NBC News report: I spoke out of line about conversations I wasn’t privy to … I should’ve given more complete info or none at all regarding the positive role Amb. Haley plays in the Admin.”
New reports of discord at Foggy Bottom follow months of alleged disagreements between Trump and Tillerson. The oilman urged the president to remain in the Paris climate pact, but Trump pulled out anyway. This summer, while Tillerson shuttled around the Persian Gulf trying to defuse a diplomatic spat between Qatar and its neighbors, Trump accused Qatar of sponsoring terrorism. Last weekend, Trump publicly undercut Tillerson’s North Korean diplomacy.
Of Wednesday’s press conference, one State Department official told FP, “It’s pretty standard for what we’ve come to expect anytime Tillerson faces the heat. He doesn’t handle it well, and sidesteps the issue or gets defensive too quickly.” The official added that Tillerson was “drawing attention to the fact that he’s woefully unprepared for a lot of the attention he’s getting.”
Update: This piece was updated to include Heather Nauert’s comments.
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Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin