Secretary of State Rex Tillerson considered resigning in July due to mounting frustration with President Donald Trump but was dissuaded by Vice President Mike Pence, multiple senior administration officials told NBC News.
Tillerson reportedly snapped in a July 20 meeting, referring to Trump as a “moron” in front of members of Trump’s national security team and cabinet officials. Pence, motivated by a desire to project stability after a series of high profile dismissals, met with Tillerson repeatedly to urge his continued service in the administration.
Days after disparaging Trump in front of fellow cabinet officials, Tillerson reached a breaking point when Trump gave a heavily politicized speech at the Boy Scouts of America Jamboree. Tillerson, who once led the organization, vowed not to return to Washington after the speech, but White House Chief of Staff John Kelly talked him down.
Pence met with Tillerson upon his return to Washington to caution him against publicly disrespecting the president and to offer advice on tactics Tillerson might use to deescalate tensions. Kelly and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have also been instrumental in Tillerson’s decision to remain in the administration.
“They did beg him to stay,” a senior administration official told NBC News. “They just wanted stability.”
Despite public reassurances by State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, who has insisted the pair have no policy disagreements, Trump and Tillerson have publicly undermined each other on a number of occasions.
The disputes included discord related to U.S. policy toward Iran and Qatar and more personal disagreements regarding Trump’s expectation that Tillerson publicly defend his behavior.
Tillerson’s insistence that “the president speaks for himself” on the racially charged violence in Charlottesville reportedly infuriated Trump, who quickly let Tillerson know that he expected more explicit advocacy on his behalf.
Much of Tillerson’s frustration with Trump was prompted by Trump’s unwillingness to acknowledge the complexities of U.S. foreign policy. Tillerson’s July 20 reference to Trump as a “moron” came after Trump threatened to dismiss the top U.S. commander in charge of Afghanistan and compared troop-level decisions to a Manhattan building project.
The division between the two men was on display Sunday as Trump publicly undermined Tillerson’s diplomatic outreach to North Korea. One day after Tillerson announced he would be reaching out to Pyongyang in an effort to establish a new dialogue, Trump undercut the plan on Twitter.
“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” he tweeted.
Mattis, however, has claimed that the administration is more united than it seems, and others have said that Trump and Tillerson are playing “good cop, bad cop” with the North Korean regime.
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