On Wednesday morning, a story from NBC News began circulating that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—the Texan who left his role as CEO of ExxonMobil to take the position in the Trump administration—had grown furious with President Trump over the summer. The tensions had built, the network reported, and culminated after Trump’s heavily political speech in front of the Boy Scouts of America. Tillerson, according to the report, was set to resign before Vice President Mike Pence directly intervened:
Just days earlier, Tillerson had openly disparaged the president, referring to him as a “moron,” after a July 20 meeting at the Pentagon with members of Trump’s national security team and Cabinet officials, according to three officials familiar with the incident.
While it’s unclear if he was aware of the incident, Vice President Mike Pence counseled Tillerson, who is fourth in line to the presidency, on ways to ease tensions with Trump, and other top administration officials urged him to remain in the job at least until the end of the year, officials said.
As has become standard reporting procedure amid an administration beset with leaks, there are no named sources in the NBC report, instead relying on multiple accounts from officials who spoke to the network on background. But having no one to specifically refute except for a mainstream news organization gave Tillerson a lot of space to deny the story. That’s exactly what he did.
Initially, he denied the story via spokesperson R.C. Hammond, whom NBC contacted on behalf of Tillerson. Hammond, in his statement, included an unusual detail; while he insisted that Tillerson never considered offering his resignation or called Trump a “moron,” he noted that he was aware of one meeting between Pence and Tillerson. Hammond claimed that the vice president had sought Tillerson’s counsel on whether U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley “was helpful to the administration.”
Following the story’s publication on Wednesday morning, Tillerson announced an impromptu press conference to address the report. Head of the press conference, rumors swirled that Tillerson would announce his resignation. He did not. Instead, he once more denied that he’d ever considered resigning. He spoke for about ten minutes, and took only a handful of questions. When asked if he did, in fact, call the President of the United States a “moron,” Tillerson declined the opportunity to deny the report, saying instead that he wasn’t “going to deal with petty stuff like that.” He then told the press that the president is “smart.”
It was a strange couple of hours for the State Department and the man who heads it. Following Tillerson’s statements, President Trump tweeted his appreciation for the gesture.