In an unusual statement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson forcefully denied persistent reports Wednesday that he planned to resign over foreign policy differences with President Trump, and instead pledged strong support for the president.
“I have never considered leaving this post,” Tillerson told a hastily called news conference at the State Department.
“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. “There is much to be done and we’re just getting started.”
He offered gushing praise for Trump, saying “he loves his country. He puts Americans and America first. He’s smart.”
Tillerson has clashed with the White House over climate change and other foreign policy priorities, and his tenure has never appeared secure. Trump publicly undermined him Sunday, tweeting that Tillerson was “wasting his time” by seeking a diplomatic solution to the standoff with nuclear-armed North Korea.
Speaking at a Las Vegas hospital after visiting survivors of Sunday night’s mass shooting, Trump told reporters he was "honored" by Tillerson's comments and assailed NBC as "fake news." He said, "Total confidence in Rex. I have total confidence."
Tillerson, a former CEO of Exxon Mobil, said news reports about his differences with Trump were the work of people trying to sow dissension.
Asked about an NBC News report that said Tillerson had called Trump a “moron” at a Pentagon meeting this summer, Tillerson dismissed the question, but did not deny it.
“I mean, this is what I don’t understand about Washington,” said Tillerson, who is from Texas. “Again, I’m not from this place, but the places I come from, we don’t deal with that kind of petty nonsense. And it is intended to do nothing but divide people.”
Tillerson did deny part of the same NBC News report that said Vice President Mike Pence had to persuade him not to quit after Trump delivered a partisan political speech to the Boy Scouts Jamboree in July. Tillerson served as national president of the Boy Scouts from 2010 to 2012.
“The vice president has never had to persuade me to remain the secretary of State because I have never considered leaving this post,” Tillerson said.
Trump put a positive face on the comments, tweeting shortly after Tillerson finished speaking: “The @NBCNews story has just been totally refuted by Sec. Tillerson and @VP Pence. It is #FakeNews. They should issue an apology to AMERICA!”
Later, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert denied explicitly that Tillerson had described Trump as a moron. "He does not use that kind of language," she said.
Tillerson, 65, read his statement in the ornate Treaty Room of the State Department and then answered several questions. He listed what he described as successes under the Trump administration, including the gradual defeat of Islamic State and isolation of North Korea.
“What we have accomplished, we have done as a team,” he said.
It is not the first time Tillerson has had to refute speculation that he was on his way out over policy differences with Trump.
He opposed Trump’s decision to withdraw from the historic Paris climate accord in which countries agreed to goals to reduce global-warming carbon emissions. He also opposed Trump’s decision to abandon the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
He has said Iran is in “technical compliance” with the 2015 nuclear disarmament accord that Trump has called a national embarrassment. Tillerson refused to say Wednesday what he will advise Trump, who faces an Oct. 15 deadline to tell Congress if the deal remains in the U.S. national security interest.
In Beijing on Saturday, Tillerson revealed that the United States had “direct” channels of communication with North Korea. Tillerson had barely landed in Washington early Sunday before Trump undercut him on Twitter.
“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man," Trump tweeted, using his nickname for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
"Save your energy, Rex. We'll do what has to be done!" Trump added.
Many in the foreign policy community reacted with chagrin to Tillerson’s statement Wednesday.
“Like others before him, Tillerson has now given the big boss what he wants: subservience & adoration. Even commented on his intelligence,” Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, wrote in a tweet.
Richard Haass, president of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted: “Rex Tillerson has been dealt a bad hand by [Trump] & has played it badly. For both reasons he cannot be effective SecState & should resign.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters that he strongly supports Tillerson, but worries that he “is in an incredibly frustrating place."
Corker, who has said he won’t run for reelection next year, said Tillerson, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly work well together on foreign policy and “help separate our country from chaos."
Asked if he thought Tillerson is being undermined as secretary of State, Corker said: "I don't think it. Based on my observations, I'm certain of it."
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12:15 p.m.: Updated with quotes from President Trump and others.
This story was published at 11:20 a.m.