In recent days, foreign policy pundits have been scratching their heads over the apparent lack of directly lines of communication between the White House and the State Department, which led Trump to chide Sec State Rex Tillerson over the weekend, tweeting that there is no need to negotiate with North Korea, as Trump would “handle this” even as it emerged for the first time that the US had engaged in direct contact with Pyongyang. This was merely the latest example of the White House seemingly taking a position opposite to that pushed by Tillerson, prompting many to ask if there is a fallout between the former Exxon CEO and Donald Trump.
Today, NBC gives one possible explanation for the bizarre relationship between the two men, with a report that Rex Tillerson was on the verge of resigning this past summer amid mounting policy disputes and clashes with the White House. The tensions reportedly came to a head around the time President Donald Trump delivered a politicized speech in late July to the Boy Scouts of America, an organization Tillerson once led, NBC reported citing officials familiar.
Tillerson, who was in Texas for his son’s wedding in late July when Trump addressed the Boy Scouts, had threatened not to return to Washington, according to three people with direct knowledge of the threats. His discussions with retired Gen. John Kelly, who would soon be named Trump’s second chief of staff, and Defense Secretary James Mattis, helped initially to reassure him, four people with direct knowledge of the exchanges said.
At that time, however, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert responded to speculation that Tillerson was thinking about resigning by saying he was “committed to staying” and was “just taking a little time off” in Texas.
Just days earlier, Tillerson had openly disparaged the president, referring to him as a “moron” after a July 20 meeting at the Pentagon with members of Trump’s national security team and Cabinet officials. NBC notes that while it’s unclear if he was aware of the incident, VP Mike Pence “counseled Tillerson”, who is fourth in line to the presidency, on ways to ease tensions with Trump, and other top administration officials urged him to remain in the job at least until the end of the year.
Officials said that the administration, beset then by a series of high-level firings and resignations, would have struggled to manage the fallout from a Cabinet secretary of his stature departing within the first year of Trump’s presidency.
After Tillerson’s return to Washington, Pence arranged a meeting with him, according to three officials. During the meeting, Pence gave Tillerson a “pep talk,” one of these officials said, but also had a message: the secretary needed to figure out how to move forward within Trump’s policy framework. Pence also reportedly asked Tillerson to be “respectful of the president in meetings and in public”, urging that any disagreements be sorted out privately, a White House official said. The official said progress has since been made.
Kelly and Mattis have been Tillerson’s strongest allies in the cabinet. In late July, “they did beg him to stay,” a senior administration official said. “They just wanted stability.”
Tillerson’s top State Department spokesman, R.C. Hammond, said Tillerson did not consider quitting this past summer. He denied that Tillerson called Trump a “moron.” Hammond said he was unaware of the details of Tillerson’s meetings with Pence. And yet, as recent developments showed, the tensions between the two have not abated.
This weekend, tensions spilled out into the open once again when the president seemed to publicly chide Tillerson on his handling of the crisis with North Korea.
It’s unclear if the latest disagreement between the White House and Tillerson on North Korea spells an end to the late-July reset. Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state for political affairs under President George W. Bush, said Trump “completely undercut Tillerson” with his tweets.
“This was a direct public, I thought, repudiation of what Tillerson said,” Burns said. “It feeds the perception that Tillerson does not have a trusting relationship with the president, and that’s very harmful
It was also just the latest culmination in the ongoing feud between the two: Tillerson and Trump clashed over a series of key foreign policy issues over the summer, including Iran and Qatar. Trump chafed at Tillerson’s attempts to push him – privately and publicly – toward decisions that were at odds with his policy positions, according to officials. Hammond said Tillerson has had no policy differences with Trump. “The president’s policy is his policy,” Hammond said.
In August, Trump was furious with Tillerson over his response to a question about the president’s handling of the racially charged and deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, administration officials said. Trump had said publicly that white nationalists and neo-Nazi sympathizers shared blame for violence with those who came out to protest them.
“The president speaks for himself,” Tillerson said at the time, when asked on “Fox News Sunday” about Trump’s comments.
Hammond said Trump addressed the issue with Tillerson in a meeting the next day. He said that during the meeting, Trump congratulated another White House official, Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert, for his performance on the Sunday news talk shows. Bossert had defended Trump’s controversial pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio.
The president, according to Hammond, told Tillerson he was upset with his comments when he saw them the first time. But, Hammond said Trump told Tillerson, after watching the interview a second and third time, the president understood that Tillerson was trying to say Trump is the best person to convey what his values are. Still, the message was clear that Trump wanted Tillerson to defend him more, Hammond said.
But it was Tillerson’s prior slam of Trump – one which has not been reported previously – that may prove to be the last straw:
Tillerson stunned a handful of senior administration officials when he called the president a “moron” after a tense two-hour long meeting in a secure room at the Pentagon called “The Tank,” NBC reports citing three officials who were present or briefed on the incident. The July 20 meeting came a day after a meeting in the White House Situation Room on Afghanistan policy where Trump rattled his national security advisers by suggesting he might fire the top U.S. commander of the war and comparing the decision-making process on troop levels to the renovation of a high-end New York restaurant, according to participants in the meeting.
Tillerson also has complained about being publicly undermined by the president on the administration’s foreign policy agenda, officials said. Those strains were on display this past weekend when Tillerson said, to the White House’s surprise, that the U.S. is attempting diplomatic talks with North Korea.
Trump quickly took the opposite position, writing on Twitter “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…,” using his latest epithet for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“…Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!” Trump added in a second tweet.
Asked whether the president still has confidence in Tillerson, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Monday that he does.
While it is unclear whether Trump was told of Tillerson’s outburst after the Pentagon meeting or to what extent the president was briefed on Tillerson’s plan to resign earlier in the year, Trump will be fully aware now. While it is certainly possible that Trump would let Tillerson, the question is whether such a move would elevate US foreign policy risks, which will be exposed to the aggressive nature of Trump’s tweets without Tillerson to act as a potential buffer. According to NBC, administration officials speculate that Tillerson would be succeeded by Haley if Tillerson were to depart.