WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Sunday ducked, danced and sidestepped the question of whether he truly called President Donald Trump a “moron,” dismissing the brouhaha as the “petty stuff” of Washington. Though they keep coming, Tillerson insisted the persistent queries aren’t hindering his mission as the nation’s top diplomat.
Asked about a leading GOP senator’s comment — “You cannot publicly castrate your own secretary of state” — Tillerson would have none of it. “I checked. I’m fully intact.”
Again and again, Tillerson declined in a news show interview to attest to the accuracy of the report about his use of the word “moron” to describe the commander in chief.
Tillerson said he was “not dignifying the question with an answer,” reprising his response from earlier this month, the morning the story broke, when he used an extraordinary televised statement to insist he had nothing but respect for Trump.
“I’m not making a game out of it,” Tillerson said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Asked once more, he replied: “I’m not playing.”
Yet Tillerson has let others play it on his behalf. He previously dispatched State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert to flatly deny he ever called the president a “moron.”
It was unclear why Tillerson was unwilling to repeat what his spokeswoman has said on his behalf. But the continuing questions have brought his strained relationship with the president into renewed focus.
Tillerson insisted the relationship is solid, and that the continuing public focus on whether he’s being undermined by the president has not impeded his ability to succeed in his role. As the drama has played out, Tillerson has brushed it off as meaningless Washington-centric noise that he says he doesn’t understand as an outsider. The Texan and former Exxon Mobil CEO never served in government or politics before becoming secretary of state.
“I know the appearance of it certainly looks like there’s sometimes disunity,” Tillerson said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” ”There’s no confusion among the people that matter.”
Questions about Trump’s tensions with his secretary of state come as the U.S. faces a series of international crises, including the threat posed by North Korea and fate of the Iran nuclear deal.
Tillerson’s critics, including a growing list of foreign policy experts, have questioned whether he can effectively lead American diplomacy if he’s perceived by foreign leaders as being at odds with the true decision-maker: Trump.
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican who has become a vocal critic of the president, made the castration analogy last week to The Washington Post.
“At the end of the day, he makes decisions,” Tillerson said of the president. “I go out and do the best I can to execute those decisions successfully.”
Despite Tillerson’s attempts to show he’s in lockstep with the president, the NBC News report of his “moron” comment infuriated Trump, who privately bashed his secretary of state to associates and publicly challenged Tillerson to an IQ test.
“And I can tell you who is going to win,” Trump told Forbes magazine. The White House later said he was joking.
The White House did not immediately respond to Tillerson’s CNN interview. Trump visited his Virginia golf course for the second consecutive day on Sunday.
People close to Trump say the president has grown increasingly dissatisfied with Tillerson, whom Trump views as holding a conventional view of America’s role in the world and lacking star power. Tillerson, meanwhile, is said to have grown weary of Trump contradicting his public pronouncements and of becoming increasingly isolated in a capital to which he has never warmed.
Tillerson has been painted by some “America First” forces as a publicity-shy, slow-moving “globalist” who did not grasp the nationalist platform of Trump’s campaign. Trump himself has been irked by Tillerson’s advocacy of staying in both the Paris climate deal and the Iran nuclear pact, and has complained to associates that he does not like how Tillerson candidly voices his disapproval to the president in meetings, according to White House officials and outside advisers.
They men also disagreed on the nation’s Afghanistan strategy, which was discussed in the July Pentagon meeting, though Trump was persuaded by Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis to maintain the United States’ presence in the region. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Sunday that was proof the relationship could work.
“Well, at the end of the day, I think Secretary Tillerson gave a good overview of the relationship,” Graham told CBS. “I’m not here to beat up on Bob [Corker]. I’m here to tell you that the president has changed his opinions when it came to Afghanistan by listening to the best national security team I’ve seen in 20 years.
Trump empowered his son-in-law, senior adviser Jared Kushner, to spearhead the administration’s efforts at Middle East peace, stripping the State Department of what is usually a major priority. Trump also grew annoyed with what he perceived as Tillerson’s go-it-alone approach to diplomacy with North Korea, declaring in a scorching recent tweet that the secretary of state was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump’s nickname for Kim Jong Un.
The president was also angry with Tillerson’s remarks after Trump declared there were “fine people” on both sides of the clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, between white supremacists and anti-racist demonstrators that left one person dead, according to two people familiar with the Trump’s beliefs but not authorized to discuss private conversations.
“The president speaks for himself,” Tillerson said at the time.
Lemire reported from Sterling, Virginia.