Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday pushed back on a report claiming that he threatened to quit and called President Donald Trump a “moron” over the summer, and held an unscheduled press conference to praise his boss and affirm his “commitment to the president and the success of our country.”
The nation’s top diplomat is said to have called Trump a “moron” following a meeting with members of Trump’s national security team, senior administration officials reportedly told NBC News.
When asked about the incident on Wednesday, Tillerson did not directly deny that it had occurred, saying: “I’m not going to deal with petty stuff like that.”
Later in the day, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tillerson did not call Trump a “moron.”
“The secretary does not use that type of language,” she told reporters. “He did not say that.”
Tillerson also reportedly threatened not to return to Washington in July, according to NBC. He was in his home state of Texas for his son’s wedding when Trump delivered a widely condemned, highly politicized speech to the Boy Scouts of America. Tillerson was formerly the organization’s national president.
White House chief of staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis apparently stepped in to “beg him to stay,” according to the report. Nauert said at the time that Tillerson was merely “taking a little time off.”
Vice President Mike Pence also got involved, officials added, offering Tillerson a “pep talk” over breakfast and encouraging him to find ways to smooth over the relationship with Trump. He suggested that Tillerson adopt a more conciliatory approach in public settings, and save his differences for private meetings.
On Wednesday, Tillerson denied that the intervention occurred.
“I have never considered leaving this post,” he said, before repeatedly showering Trump with praise and calling the president “smart.”
Trump called out NBC on Twitter, referring to its report as “fake news.”
Immediately following Tillerson’s press conference, Trump tweeted again, telling NBC to “issue an apology” ― despite the fact that Tillerson did not deny calling the president a “moron.”
A spokesman for Pence called the reporting “categorically false,” denying that Pence urged Tillerson not to resign — though NBC’s reporting only suggested that Pence intervened to tamp down on tensions between Tillerson and Trump.
“The Vice President values the service of the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and is grateful for his strong affirmation of President Trump’s America First foreign policy agenda,” Pence’s communications director Jarrod Agen said in a statement. “The Vice President can also confirm that, as the Secretary of State made clear, at no time did he and the Secretary ever discuss the prospect of the Secretary’s resignation from the administration.”
“We stand by our reporting,” an NBC News spokeswoman told HuffPost.
MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle, one of the reporters who worked on the story, also the reporting and apparently suggested that Tillerson went even further.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested that Trump still had confidence in Tillerson.
“As we’ve said many times before, if the president doesn’t have confidence in somebody, they will no longer be in their position,” she told reporters on Air Force One.
Later in the day, Trump affirmed that he has “total confidence in Rex” and again claimed NBC’s reporting was “fake news” and “a phony story.”
Speculation has swirled for months about how long Tillerson will remain secretary of state. The former Exxon Mobil CEO said he didn’t want the job, but his wife told him it was something he had to do.
Trump has publicly contradicted Tillerson’s statements about U.S. foreign policy on several occasions. Tillerson traveled regularly to the Middle East to mediate following the Gulf states’ blockade on Qatar. On the day that he called for easing the blockade, Trump made a speech arguing that it was “hard but necessary” and lambasted Qatar ― one of America’s key Middle Eastern allies ― for funding terrorism.
Tillerson is also reportedly working behind the scenes to salvage the Iran nuclear deal, an agreement Trump has condemned as “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”
Additionally, Tillerson has hinted that the U.S. should remain in the Paris climate agreement ― a pact Trump backed out of in June.
“The president said he is open to finding those conditions where we can remain engaged with others on what we all agree is still a challenging issue,” Tillerson said in September. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster echoed this, adding that the U.S. could possibly re-enter the Paris accord if a “better deal” comes together.
The Trump-Tillerson friction extends beyond foreign policy.
“The president speaks for himself,” Tillerson told Fox News in August, following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump had said that “both sides” ― white nationalists as well as those protesting them ― were to blame for violence.
Trump elevated tensions again over the weekend, tweeting that Tillerson shouldn’t waste his time seeking a diplomatic solution with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un ― who the president calls “Little Rocket Man.” Advisers described Trump as “furious” at Tillerson for going against the president’s stance in favor of military action, according to The New York Times.
The State Department disputed reports of discord.
“The president’s policy is his policy,” spokesman R.C. Hammond told NBC. comment.
This is a developing story and has been updated throughout.