Tillerson’s long-simmering frustrations thrust onto public stage – Politico
For most of his eight months on the job, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has endured rumors that he might soon quit it. On Wednesday, he finally fought back.
Within hours of an NBC News report that he had nearly resigned this summer after allegedly calling President Donald Trump a “moron,” Tillerson held a news conference to insist that he has “never considered” leaving his post.
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The original report sent Trump into a fury this morning, a White House official said, and Tillerson moved with corporate efficiency to tamp it down. Cable networks interrupted programming for his remarks, the highest-profile public appearance to date by the former ExxonMobil CEO, who has played a surprisingly quiet — and at times awkward — role in Trump’s Cabinet.
While Trump was expressing “total confidence” in Tillerson by midafternoon, the episode further complicated perhaps the most fraught relationship between a president and a secretary of state ever seen. It also comes at a precarious moment for Trump’s foreign policy team as it navigates the twin diplomatic challenges of the Iran nuclear deal and North Korea’s atomic program.
Even as the White House sought to paper over any rift, with Trump lashing out at what he called “fake news” reports on the alleged July episode, Tillerson’s admirers in the foreign policy establishment rose to his defense.
“I think Secretary Tillerson, [Defense Secretary James] Mattis and chief of staff [John] Kelly are those people that help separate our country from chaos,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday.
But nothing about Wednesday’s events will dispel the image of Tillerson as a man unhappy and ill at ease with the president he serves — both in substance and in style.
In many ways, Tillerson embodies the moderate Republican establishment against which Trump campaigned. He was recommended for the job by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, friends of his and avatars of their party’s foreign policy machine. Where Trump is a bombastic media-driven New Yorker who speaks in superlatives, Tillerson is a soft-spoken Texan who keeps the media at arm’s length.
And where Tillerson, a trained engineer, grew accustomed in his long ExxonMobil tenure to corporate efficiency, chain of command and running his own show, he has found himself dealing — to his great frustration, associates say — with relatively young and inexperienced White House officials in an atmosphere of constant chaos.
Tillerson was also unhappy with Trump’s handling of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned violent this summer, from which Tillerson conspicuously distanced himself. The president subsequently expressed frustration that Tillerson had not displayed more loyalty, a State Department spokesman told NBC News.
On policy, Tillerson and Trump have repeatedly and publicly clashed: Tillerson opposed Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord and has tried to moderate his views on the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump despises but Tillerson believes the U.S. must honor. After Gulf Arab states in June imposed an embargo on their neighbor Qatar, which they say harbors terrorists and aids Iran, Trump openly contradicted Tillerson’s public defense of Qatar.
Tillerson tried to wave away those differences on Wednesday. “Let me tell you what I have learned about this president, whom I did not know before taking this office: He loves his country. He puts Americans and America first,” he told reporters. “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.”
But many veteran foreign policy insiders were unmoved by the show of allegiance.
Asked about Tillerson’s performance, Eliot Cohen, a former counselor to Rice’s State Department and one of the president’s harshest Republican critics, called it “pathetic, servile and, above all, unconvincing.”
Others doubted the sincerity of his denial that he has considered stepping into a life of retirement, as he had originally planned before Trump called last winter.
“He wanted to make it a year, and that would take him into early February. Whether that happens now is anybody’s guess,” said one source who knows Tillerson and is familiar with his conversations with friends. Two other State Department officials said they considered his reassurances about staying in the job a further sign that he may soon leave.
Tillerson was responding to an NBC report that he had disparaged Trump after a July meeting at the Pentagon with members of the president’s national security team. Citing multiple unnamed sources, the network reported that the secretary of state was furious over Trump’s controversially political speech at a Boy Scouts of America jamboree and remained in his job only after discussions with Vice President Mike Pence and other administration officials.
Notably absent from Tillerson’s remarks was a flat denial that he had called the president of the United States a “moron.”
“We don’t deal with that kind of petty nonsense,” he said when asked about the NBC report. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters soon after that Tillerson “does not use that kind of language. … He did not say that.” She added that Tillerson and Trump spoke Wednesday after the diplomat’s news conference.
“I’m very honored by his comments. … Total confidence in Rex. I have total confidence,” Trump said in Las Vegas on Wednesday. Of the NBC report, Trump added: “It was fake news. It was a totally phony story.”
Tillerson did insist that, contrary to NBC’s reporting, Pence “never had to persuade me to remain as secretary of state, because I have never considered leaving this post.”
“Tillerson is laser focused on three missions: advising, along with the rest of the team, his president; executing American policy and transforming the State Department so it’s a better instrument of American statecraft,” said James Carafano, a foreign policy and defense expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation who advised the Trump transition.
Carafano and other Tillerson allies cast the former Boy Scouts executive as a Washington outsider who holds the capital’s parlor games in contempt and tries to remain focused on public service and the national interest.
“He has time for little else, including engaging with media and the constant swirl of Washington gossip. … I don’t think he is a quitter and think the evidence is he is a valued and effective member of the president’s team,” Carafano added.
White House sources agreed, saying they never believed Tillerson was on the brink of resignation — or a “Rexit,” as some foreign policy wags have taken to calling it.
Talk of Tillerson’s standing had already reached a fever pitch in Washington after Trump tweeted on Sunday that Tillerson “is wasting his time trying to negotiate” a diplomatic solution to the U.S. standoff with North Korea over the Asian dictatorship’s nuclear and missile programs.
The message was particularly painful for Tillerson given that he was completing a trip to China to rally U.S. allies against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
While foreign policy experts were aghast that Trump had undercut Tillerson, two White House aides said Trump was angry at Tillerson for diverging from the president’s approach of intimidating Kim, whom Trump (but not Tillerson) calls “Little Rocket Man.”
Wednesday’s extraordinary drama also exposed the limits of the new discipline White House chief of staff John Kelly has sought to impose. Tillerson and Mattis have developed a close relationship but often struggle to coordinate with the president and his closest aides.
In addition to his struggles with the president, Tillerson has taken on his own department, pledging to reorganize the State Department and slash its diplomatic corps, engendering deep suspicion and even hostility within the ranks of the foreign service.
R.C. Hammond, Tillerson’s spokesman, issued his own cleanup Wednesday, tweeting that he “spoke out of line” when he told NBC about conversations regarding Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who is rumored to be a potential replacement for Tillerson.
Hammond had told NBC that Pence had asked Tillerson whether he thought Haley “was helpful to the administration, or if he was worried about the role she was playing.”
“Regarding the NBC News report: I spoke out of line about conversations I wasn’t privy to,” Hammond tweeted on Wednesday. “I should’ve given more complete info or none at all regarding the positive role Amb. Haley plays in the Admin.”
Jarrod Agen, a spokesman for Pence, also issued a statement, denying that the vice president had talked with Tillerson about potentially leaving or questioned Tillerson about Haley’s role.
“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,” Agen said in the statement. “In addition, any statements that the Vice President questioned Ambassador Nikki Haley’s value to the Trump Administration is also categorically false.”
Tillerson, a political newcomer who faced one of the most contentious Senate confirmation hearings in recent history, said in the past that he was hesitant to accept the position of secretary of state and had been looking forward to retirement before it was offered.
“I didn’t want this job. I didn’t seek this job,” Tillerson told the Independent Journal Review in March. “My wife told me I’m supposed to do this.”
Josh Dawsey, Annie Karni and Louis Nelson contributed to this report.