STERLING, Va. – The strained relationship between President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson came under renewed focus Sunday, as the nation’s top diplomat insisted that Trump has not undermined him even as he again refused to deny calling the president “a moron.”
Tensions between the two men have grown while the nation faces a series of high-stakes international crises, including the threat posed by North Korea and fate of the Iran nuclear deal, and threatens to sow doubt about American allies as to whether Tillerson can speak authoritatively for the United States. The secretary of state insisted that he has a strong working relationship with the president without any name-calling.
“I call the president ‘Mr. President.’ He and I have a very, very open, frank and candid relationship. We have a very open exchange of views on policy,” Tillerson said during an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN’s State of the Union. “At the end of the day, he makes decisions. I go out and do the best I can to execute those decisions successfully.
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“He has assembled a very, I think, unconventional team,” Tillerson continued. “He himself is an unconventional president. He’s assembled an unconventional Cabinet. I’m an unconventional pick for secretary of state.”
But Tillerson would not answer repeated questions as to whether he called Trump, as has been reported, “a moron” after a tense meeting at the Pentagon in July during which the national security team stressed to a skeptical president the need for a robust American presence around the globe.
First, Tillerson parried: “I’m not going to deal with that kind of petty stuff.”
Then he stonewalled: “As I said, Jake, I’m not playing.”
Then he side-stepped: “I’m not making a game out of it.”
And then he danced around it: “I’m not dignifying the question with an answer, Jake.”
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The firestorm around the “moron” comment, which was first reported by NBC, prompted Tillerson to hold a remarkable press conference at the State Department earlier this month during which he pledged fealty to Trump but did not deny using the word. A State Department spokeswoman later denied that Tillerson said it.
But the reports infuriated Trump, who privately bashed his secretary of state to associates and publicly challenged Tillerson to an IQ test.
“And I can tell you who is going to win,” Trump told Forbes magazine. The White House later said he was joking.
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But despite Tillerson’s efforts to move beyond the story, it has created a perception among many in Washington that the clash with Trump has weakened the secretary of state’s voice on the world stage. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican who has recently become a vocal critic of the president, last week suggested that Tillerson had been “castrated” by the president.
Tillerson, a ranch owner, joked that he had not been gelded.
“I checked. I’m fully intact,” he said.
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The White House did not immediately respond to Tillerson’s interview. Trump visited his Virginia golf course for the second consecutive day on Sunday.
People close to Trump say the president has grown increasingly dissatisfied with the former Exxon CEO, whom he views as holding a conventional view of America’s role in the world and lacking star power. Tillerson, meanwhile, is said to have grown weary of Trump contradicting his public pronouncements and of becoming increasingly isolated in a capital to which he has never warmed.
Tillerson has been painted by some “America First” forces as a publicity-shy, slow-moving “globalist” who did not grasp the nationalist platform of Trump’s campaign. Trump himself has been irked by Tillerson’s advocacy of staying in both the Paris climate deal and the Iran nuclear pact, and has complained to associates that he does not like how Tillerson candidly voices his disapproval to the president in meetings, according to White House officials and outside advisers.
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They men also disagreed on the nation’s Afghanistan strategy, which was discussed in the July Pentagon meeting, though Trump was persuaded by Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis to maintain the United States’ presence in the region. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Sunday that was proof the relationship could work.
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“Well, at the end of the day, I think Secretary Tillerson gave a good overview of the relationship,” Graham told CBS. “I’m not here to beat up on Bob (Corker). I’m here to tell you that the president has changed his opinions when it came to Afghanistan by listening to the best national security team I’ve seen in 20 years.
Trump empowered his son-in-law, senior adviser Jared Kushner, to spearhead the administration’s efforts at Middle East peace, stripping the State Department of what is usually a major priority. Trump also grew annoyed with what he perceived as Tillerson’s go-it-alone approach to diplomacy with North Korea, declaring in a scorching recent tweet that the secretary of state was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump’s nickname for Kim Jong Un.
The president was also angry with Tillerson’s remarks after Trump declared there were “fine people” on both sides of the clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, between white supremacists and anti-racist demonstrators that left one person dead, according to two people familiar with the Trump’s beliefs but not authorized to discuss private conversations.
“The president speaks for himself,” Tillerson said at the time.