Video by: Washington Post

Tillerson vows to stay on amid tensions with Trump

He spoke after NBC reported that he almost resigned and that he once called the president a moron.

  • By BRADLEY KLAPPER Associated Press
  • Wednesday, October 4, 2017 1:00pm
  • Nation-World

By Anne Gearan and Carol Morello / The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insisted Wednesday that he is not planning to quit, rebutting weeks of reports of policy disputes and personal clashes with the White House.

“I have never considered leaving this post,” Tillerson said at an extraordinary and hastily called news conference at the State Department.

Tillerson did not directly respond to an NBC News report earlier Wednesday that he had referred to President Donald Trump as a “moron.”

“I’m not going to deal with petty points like that,” Tillerson said, adding that he does not understand what he called a Washington impulse to “sow dissension” and undermine the administration’s work.

He called Trump “smart” and committed to American security and the accountability of those around him.

Trump responded quickly on Twitter after Tillerson’s appearance: “The @NBCNews story has just been totally refuted by Sec. Tillerson and @VP Pence. It is #FakeNews. They should issue an apology to AMERICA!”

Tillerson’s public remarks came after months of disagreements between Tillerson and the White House over staffing and administrative matters at the State Department and a disconnect over what Trump saw as Tillerson’s conventional approach to policy matters.

Over the weekend, Trump contradicted Tillerson on diplomatic relations with North Korea and its leader. Trump tweeted that the secretary of state was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man” — his nickname for North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

The former ExxonMobil chief executive’s eight-month State Department tenure has been marked by tension over what Tillerson saw as Trump’s impulse to cut him off at the knees on policy initiatives, and what the White House increasingly saw as Tillerson’s tendency to freelance.

Tillerson’s growing isolation from the administration, and his personal anger at Trump, was chronicled in the NBC News report, in which sources described Tillerson as on the verge of quitting in July. Vice President Pence gave Tillerson a “pep talk” and told him he needed move forward with Trump’s policies, NBC reported.

Tillerson flatly denied Wednesday that Pence had intervened to talk him out of leaving, and said persistent rumors of an impending exit had been “misreported.” The rumors were widespread enough to earn a nickname: “Rexit.”

Tillerson had denied those earlier rumors that he was fed up and ready to quit, telling reporters in July that he wasn’t “going anywhere.”

Asked whether U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley might replace him, Tillerson said last month that he planned to “stick around” for a while.

“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,” Tillerson said Wednesday. “His agenda has given voice to millions who felt abandoned by the political status quo and felt their interests came second to those of other countries.”

Tillerson said he plans to stay in his job for as long as Trump wants him to do so.

“I serve at the appointment of the president, and I’m here for as long as the president feels I can be useful in achieving his objectives.”

Whispers about Tillerson being on the outs never went away, however. White House officials have recently groused to associates outside the administration that Tillerson felt too free to speak or act on his own, without White House approval, and about what officials familiar with recent policy discussions called a worsening relationship with national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

Tillerson also raised eyebrows with apparent criticism of Trump’s response to a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in August, which the president said had included many “fine people.” Tillerson’s pointed remark that “the president speaks for himself” irked Trump, but did not provoke a crisis.

Tillerson, 65, had spent his entire professional career at the company now known as ExxonMobil. An engineer by training, he had no prior government experience and no relationship with Trump before the newly elected Republican selected him as the nation’s top diplomat last fall.

“He loves his country. He puts Americans and America first,” Tillerson said of his boss.

“He’s smart. He demands results wherever he goes, and he holds those around him accountable for whether they’ve done the job he’s asked them to do. Accountability is one of the bedrock values the president and I share.”

Tillerson entered office as one of the mainstream foreign policy and national security voices around Trump, putting him at odds with Trump’s first national security adviser Michael Flynn and his former chief strategist Stephen Bannon. He also held an uncertain balance of power with Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, whom Trump tasked with seeking Middle East peace and described as a key foreign policy adviser.

Tillerson won some policy battles and lost others, most prominently over whether the United States should remain in the Paris climate accord and how to approach the looming threat from North Korea.

Tillerson clashed with other Trump advisers over the administration’s approach to the Iran nuclear deal, and whether Trump should certify to Congress next month that the landmark agreement is in the U.S. national interest.

Tillerson has argued internally that it is, despite what he calls serious flaws in the deal. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis went public Tuesday with the same argument. But Trump has strongly suggested he will go the other way, and has chafed at being “steered” toward what he views as inauthentic position, several people familiar with the dispute said.

Tillerson would not say Wednesday whether he agrees with Mattis, whose own position within the administration appears solid.

Tillerson also said he had not spoken with Trump on Wednesday morning. Trump was on his way to Las Vegas, where he planned to meet with law enforcement and victims of Sunday night’s mass shooting.

Asked about Tillerson during the flight to Las Vegas, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: “As we’ve said many times before, if the president doesn’t have confidence in somebody, they will no longer be in their position.”

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