WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson insisted on Wednesday that he has never considered resigning, despite what associates have described as deep frustration. But he did not deny a report that he has grown so disenchanted with President Trump that he once referred to him as a “moron.”
Just three days after Trump publicly undercut Tillerson by dismissing efforts to reach out to North Korea, the secretary of state abruptly summoned reporters to reaffirm his loyalty to the president and dispute a report by NBC News that he had been prepared to step down over the summer until counseled by Vice President Mike Pence.
“The vice president has never had to persuade me to remain as secretary of state because I have never considered leaving this post,” Tillerson said. Pence separately denied the report.
But Tillerson did not contest other elements of the article, including an episode when he was said to have called Trump a “moron” after a meeting at the Pentagon with other national security officials last summer.
“I’m not going to deal with petty stuff like that,” he replied when asked specifically if he had assigned that label to the president. But his spokeswoman later denied it on his behalf.
Just last week, Tom Price resigned as secretary of health and human services after being publicly scolded by Trump for his use of chartered flights.
Trump has lost several top officials, including a chief of staff, a national security adviser, a chief strategist, a press secretary, and two communications directors. He has fired the FBI director, belittled his attorney general, and assailed the deputy attorney general.
Trump, speaking with reporters in Las Vegas, where he was visiting victims of this week’s mass shooting, dismissed the report that Tillerson considered resignation. “It was fake news,” he said. “It’s a totally phony story.” Asked about the secretary, Trump said, “Total confidence in Rex. I have total confidence.”
At a briefing in Washington, Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, said Tillerson was not asked to speak to the news media but chose to do so on his own. She said the secretary spoke with Trump after making his statement, and reported to her that “it was a good conversation.”
Asked why Tillerson did not deny using the word “moron,” Nauert denied it for him. “The secretary did not use that type of language to speak about the president of the United States,” she said. “He does not use that language to speak about anyone.” Pressed, she said flatly, “He did not say that.”
Even as Tillerson denied a rift on Wednesday, he alluded to significant differences over North Korea and Iran. He stressed the possibility of a peaceful resolution of the nuclear dispute with North Korea and associated himself with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who just a day earlier endorsed retaining the nuclear agreement with Iran that Trump has threatened to rip up. He praised Mattis as a “secretary of defense who embraces diplomacy” and noted that they speak nearly every day.
Tillerson said he had not spoken with Trump on Wednesday morning before making his statement but offered words of praise. “President Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda has given voice to millions who felt completely abandoned by the political status quo and who felt their interests came second to those of other countries,” he said. “President Trump’s foreign policy goals break the mold of what people traditionally think is achievable on behalf of our country.”
Over the weekend, Tillerson told reporters traveling with him to China that he had been exploring the possibility of talks with North Korea through two or three channels.
Trump was described by advisers as livid and publicly undercut the secretary of state on Twitter by telling him he was “wasting his time,” adding, “Save your energy, Rex.”
‘Total confidence in Rex. I have total confidence.’
The tension grew on Wednesday morning with the NBC News article reporting that Tillerson was ready to resign over the summer. The article said that the secretary was particularly upset at Trump’s politicized speech before the Boy Scouts of America, an organization Tillerson previously headed. He was in Texas at the time for his son’s wedding and threatened not to return to Washington, NBC reported, citing three people with direct knowledge of the threat, although it did not name them.
In his statement Wednesday, Tillerson did not address whether the Boy Scouts speech had bothered him but denied contemplating resignation.