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Donald Trump

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson denies wanting to resign and calling President Trump a ‘moron’

An NBC News story claimed Vice-President Mike Pence had to talk the former oil man out of quitting over the summer

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 October, 2017, 9:58pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 October, 2017, 10:09pm

US 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 answer 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 said on Wednesday.

Trump tweeted on Thursday that Tillerson “never threatened to resign”.

The president added: “This is Fake News put out by @NBCNews. Low news and reporting standards. No verification from me.”

Moron-gate: Tillerson’s job in ‘death spiral’ as he publicly confronts reports of rift with Trump

He said on Wednesday in Las Vegas, where he travelled to meet medical personnel and others affected by the mass shooting, 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, Defence 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.

The places I come from, we don’t deal with that kind of petty nonsense
Rex Tillerson

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.

Senator Bob Corker, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, said Tillerson has not been sufficiently supported and “is in an incredibly frustrating place”.

The Republican senator, who has criticised 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 ExxonMobil chief executive 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 has not said sorry to Trump, as no apology was needed.

Pence backed up Tillerson’s account by saying the two men never discussed the “prospect of the secretary’s resignation from the administration”.

“Any reporting to the contrary is categorically false,” Pence’s statement said.

NBC said Tillerson had been on the verge of resigning this summer amid mounting policy disputes with the White House. It said the tensions came to a head around the time Trump gave a politicised speech in July to the Boy Scouts of America, an organisation Tillerson once led. The network claimed Pence and Mattis convinced Tillerson to stay.

A person familiar with the conversation also disputed that the vice-president sought to coax the secretary of state into not quitting. The discussion instead focused on easing tensions between Tillerson and the White House and finding a way for him to operate better within the cabinet, said the individual, who was not authorised to speak publicly on the private discussion and demanded anonymity.

Trump himself pounced on the NBC report, before and after Tillerson offered his side of the story.

“The @NBCNews story has just been totally refuted by Sec. Tillerson and @VP Pence. It is #FakeNews. They should issue an apology to AMERICA!” Trump tweeted.

NBC stood by its reporting.