U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson nearly resigned his post over the summer due to growing policy and personal disputes with U.S. President Donald Trump, NBC News reported Wednesday. The network said that Tillerson nearly tendered his resignation before Vice President Mike Pence gave him advice on ways to soothe relations with their mutual boss.
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Tillerson denied that Pence has ever talked him out of resigning, adding that his commitment to the president and the administration remains as strong as ever.
Citing 12 unnamed current and past administration officials in their report , NBC said that Tillerson and Trump have grown increasingly aggravated with each other. Tillerson was quoted as having called Trump a "moron" in a room of members of the administration at the end of a two-hour meeting in the Pentagon on July 20.
Several days later, Trump addressed the Boy Scouts of America, an organization that Tillerson used to head. The president made a surprisingly political speech, breaking with accepted tradition in presidential addresses to the group at their annual gathering.
Pence spoke privately with the secretary of state shortly after the Pentagon meeting, the report said, though it is unclear if the vice president was aware that Tillerson had insulted Trump. Pence urged Tillerson, who is fourth in line to the presidency, to publicly respect and support the president, working out differences in private. He asked him to stay in office throughout the end of 2017, the report said that its sources said. Having lost multiple members of his administration, there was concern that losing the most senior member of the cabinet would prove a body blow to Trump's first-term presidency.
The sources also said that, following Trump's speech to the Boy Scouts, two other members of the administration spoke with Tillerson to calm him down: Defense Secretary James Mattis and John Kelly, who soon after became the administration's second chief of staff. "They did beg him to stay," NBC quoted "a senior administration official" as having said. "They just wanted stability."
Despite the sources' claims, State Department spokesmen have publicly denied allegations that the secretary was considering resignation. R.C. Hammond, the top spokesman for the department, further denied that Tillerson had called Trump a "moron." Hammond said that Mattis and Kelly had not had conversations aimed at keeping Tillerson in his position, and he said said that he was unaware of the reported meeting between the secretary and Pence.
The White House refused any official comment on the NBC report. Trump tweeted that "NBC news is #FakeNews and more dishonest than even CNN. They are a disgrace to good reporting. No wonder their news ratings are way down!"
The frustration between the two former businessmen has not been one-sided. According to the report, administration sources said that Trump had been livid with Tillerson in August following comments the secretary made to Fox News about the president's handling of the violence and racism in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the time. Trump was at the time much criticized for having said that "both sides" – white supremacists and those protesting them – were to blame for the violence.
"The president speaks for himself," had been Tillerson's reply when asked about those comments. Hammond said that Trump's anger subsided on subsequent viewings of the interview, claiming that the president came to be convinced that Tillerson had not been distancing himself, but rather asserting that words should not be placed in the president's mouth.
Over the weekend, Trump seemed to undermine his top diplomat's attempts to negotiate with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Tillerson had commented that his country was trying to make progress in talks, but Trump shortly thereafter tweeted: "I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man. Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!"
In June, Trump had also undercut Tillerson regarding the blockade imposed on Qatar by other countries in the Perian Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia. Tillerson had called on those states to ease their blockade, but Trump shortly thereafter contradicted him.
Tillerson was also reported as having been at odds with Trump over recertifying the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, which Tillerson supports and Trump has publicly criticized. The secretary has also reportedly opposed sanctions on Venezuela and suggested Israel return $75 million in aid to the U.S.
NBC reported that official in the administration have suggested that, were Tillerson to resign, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley would take his place.