WASHINGTON –Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday he has no plans to resign and will not do so, denying reports that Vice President Mike Pence had to urge him to stay in the job.
“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, refuting long-simmering reports of tension between him and President Donald Trump. “My commitment to the success of our President and our country is as strong as it was the day I accepted his offer to serve as secretary of state.”
The top diplomat addressed reporters to rebut reports that he had called Trump a “moron,” in particular an NBC article in which aides described Tillerson’s “fury” about the ways Trump has undermined him publicly on several foreign policy initiatives.
It was a remarkable public defense that only served to highlight the President’s precarious track record with his most senior officials and advisers, some of whom have resigned or been dismissed, and others, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who have had to endure public excoriation from Trump.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters on Air Force One that Trump continues to have confidence in Tillerson. If he didn’t, she said, Tillerson wouldn’t still be in his position.
Tillerson worked to distance himself from that discord, declaring that reports of his friction with Trump are the “erroneous” product of Washington back-biting that he doesn’t indulge in or condone.
The former ExxonMobil CEO went on to offer effusive praise for Trump’s approach to the world.
“President Trump’s foreign policy goals break the mold of what people traditionally think is achievable by our country,” Tillerson said. “Our job is now to achieve results on behalf of America and we are doing that.”
“What we have accomplished, we have accomplished as a team,” Tillerson said, listing a series of foreign policy steps the administration has taken, including sanctioning North Korea, pressing Arab leaders to do more against terrorism and working with India and Pakistan to stabilize Afghanistan.
Tillerson noted that he didn’t know Trump before he accepted the job and had learned about him since then.
“He loves this country. He puts Americans and America First. He’s smart,” Tillerson said in the hastily arranged statement from the State Department’s ornate Treaty Room. “He demands results wherever he goes and he holds those around him accountable.”
But tensions between Tillerson and Trump have been simmering for months, sometimes visibly, as the two have publicly diverged on some of the administration’s most crucial foreign policy challenges, including Iran and North Korea.
Trump was aware that Tillerson had referred to him as “a moron” after a meeting at the Pentagon this summer, a source familiar with the conversation told CNN, but it’s unclear if he discussed the remark with Tillerson.
Asked whether he’d ever called Trump a “moron,” Tillerson did not respond directly.
“The places I come from, we don’t deal with that kind of petty nonsense,” Tillerson said. “I’m just not going to be part of this effort to divide this administration.”
Tillerson said he hadn’t spoken to Trump on Wednesday. His statement came as the President was flying cross-country to visit survivors of Sunday’s mass shooting in Las Vegas.
Trump himself took to twitter after Tillerson spoke, stating: “The @NBCNews story has just been totally refuted by Sec. Tillerson and @VP Pence. It is #FakeNews. They should issue an apology to AMERICA!”
NBC issued a statement saying that it stands by its reporting, which involved speaking to a dozen officials.
Tillerson blamed the reports on Washington back-biting, making clear that he sees himself as an outsider.
“While I’m new to Washington, I have learned that there are some who try to sow dissension to advance their own agenda by tearing others apart, in an effort to undermine President Trump’s own agenda,” Tillerson said. “I do not and I will not operate that way.”
Tillerson expressed frustration that the reports of tension with Trump continue to surface and said he decided to speak publicly to “reaffirm my commitment to this role President Trump has asked me to serve and to dispel this notion that I have ever considered leaving.”
He said that he has been asked “repeatedly” if he’s going to step down.
“For some reason it continues to be misreported,” Tillerson complained. “There’s never been a consideration in my mind. I serve at the appointment of the president and I’m here as long as the president feels I can be useful to achieving his objectives.”