President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have clashed repeatedly in public over the last year, and America's top diplomat did not deny recently that in private he had called his boss — undiplomatically — a "moron."
On Thursday, multiple media reports said Trump was actively considering replacing Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo in another top level shakeup of an administration that has seen an unusual turnover of senior officials.
The switch would come by Jan. 20, a year after Trump's inauguration, a source close to the administration told The Times, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal workings at the White House.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who is close to Trump, would replace Pompeo at the top of the CIA, the source said.
The White House and State Department both publicly denied the reports, noting that Tillerson visited the White House twice on Thursday, and Cotton's office carefully said he still enjoyed working for the voters of Arkansas.
Asked about Tillerson during an Oval Office meeting, Trump said only, "He's here. Rex is here."
But neither the White House nor Foggy Bottom offered enthusiastic voices of support or reassurance for the embattled former Exxon Mobil chief executive.
"They have certainly had areas of disagreement," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said about Tillerson's relations with Trump. "They have had a cordial relationship. I can't say where that relationship is now."
In a news briefing, Nauert was asked whether reports that Tillerson is a short-timer and does not enjoy the president's confidence will undermine his ability to conduct diplomacy on an official visit next week to several countries in Europe.
"The secretary is someone whose feathers don't get ruffled very easily," Nauert said. "He brushed it off. He's heard these stories before."
"He remains secretary of State," she added. "He serves at the pleasure of the president."
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was guarded when asked repeatedly if Trump still had confidence in Tillerson. "When the President loses confidence in someone, they will no longer serve in the capacity that they're in," she said.
"His future right now is to continue working hard as the secretary of State, continue working with the president to carry out his agenda," she added.
At one point Thursday, Trump's chief of staff, John F. Kelly, telephoned Tillerson's chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, to assure State Department staff that media reports of Tillerson's imminent ouster were not true.
Tillerson's departure would not be a surprise. He has been at odds with the president on the utility of the Iran nuclear deal and the possibility of a diplomatic solution to the nuclear stand-off with North Korea, among other international issues.
In early October, reports surfaced that Tillerson had called the president a "moron." He pointedly did not dispute that language when he held a news conference and was repeatedly asked about it.
Trump publicly upbraided Tillerson for "wasting his time" by pursuing diplomatic solutions with North Korea. And Tillerson is said to have chafed at the way Trump handed major foreign policy portfolios, including the long-stalled effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to his son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner.
Trump was long said to be considering Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to replace Tillerson, rumors fanned by signs of open tension between the two U.S. diplomats.
Tillerson was said to be dismayed at Trump's retweeting Wednesday of virulently anti-Muslim videos produced by a fascist British group. Prime Minister Theresa May's office condemned the tweets and some State Department officials worried that a backlash in Muslim countries could endanger U.S. diplomats overseas.
Tillerson, who had no government experience when he joined the Cabinet, has indicated he wants to stay at the State Department at least long enough to finish a reorganization he has launched. The proposed restructuring calls for an 8% cut in staffing and a 31% cut in the department's budget.
The deep reductions have spurred sharp criticism on Capitol Hill and in the foreign policy community, where critics cited an alarming exodus of talented diplomats and a weakening of U.S. diplomacy in an era of grave international peril.
Tillerson's "tenure at State has been a disaster," said Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO and president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.