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Tillerson Says He Never Considered Resigning As Secretary Of State


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made an unplanned and unusual appearance at the State Department today. He came out in response to a story by NBC News that said he had considered resigning this summer amid tensions with the White House.


REX TILLERSON: There's never been a consideration in my mind to leave. I serve at the appointment of the president, and I am here for as long as the president feels I can be useful to achieving his objectives.

SIEGEL: The NBC story also said that Tillerson openly disparaged the president in July, even referring to him as a moron.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now to talk about what's going on in the Trump cabinet. And Mara, it's not every day that we hear that the secretary of state reportedly called the president a moron - not to his face but in a conversation with others. What did Tillerson say about that today?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The extraordinary thing is the Tillerson did not directly deny that report. He instead said he wasn't going to, quote, "deal with petty stuff like that." He did, however, read a statement praising the president.


TILLERSON: Let me tell you what I've learned about this president, whom I did not know before taking this office. He loves this country. He puts Americans and America first. He's smart. He demands results wherever he goes, and he holds those around him accountable for whether they've done the job he's asked them to do.

LIASSON: So the bottom line is Tillerson did not deny directly that he called the president a moron, not in his statement or in answer to a question about it. Later his press secretary said that Tillerson does not use that kind of language. President Trump, however, had his own interpretation.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Yeah, I'm very honored by his comments. It was fake news. It was a totally phony story. Thank you very much. It was made up. It was made up by NBC. They just made it up. Thank you all.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you have confidence in him?

TRUMP: Thank you - total confidence in Rex. I have total confidence. Thank you very much, everybody.

LIASSON: So the president does always want to put a positive spin on everything.

SIEGEL: But Rex Tillerson (laughter) did not deny that he had used the word moron to describe the president. I mean, why is he allowed to stay in his job in that case?

LIASSON: That is an excellent question. Look. If the NBC report is true, this is not the first time a top official has openly criticized the president. You remember after the president's remarks on Charlottesville, that top economic adviser Gary Cohn publicly expressed his dismay at the president's seeming to draw a moral equivalence between the neo-Nazis and the people protesting them.

Also after Charlottesville, Rex Tillerson was asked whether the president represented American values of tolerance and inclusion. He said just, the president speaks for himself. In any other administration, this would be considered insubordination. And it's a great irony because this is a president who values loyalty and expects and even demands praise in public from his subordinates.

SIEGEL: On the other hand, it's not just his subordinates who are criticizing him. The president is openly criticizing them and what they're doing.

LIASSON: That's right, Robert. Just this past weekend, the president undercut Tillerson, who had acknowledged he was actually talking with North Korea. Trump tweeted that Tillerson was wasting his time. This happened with the attorney general, Jeff Sessions. The president let his unhappiness with Sessions be known. He humiliated him repeatedly in public, but he didn't fire him. So it's a mixed message. He demands loyalty. He wants praise. But at the same time, he's willing to tolerate a pretty high level of dissent and disloyalty.

SIEGEL: And there's another mixed message coming out of the Trump administration. Defense Secretary Mattis testified yesterday that the U.S. should not withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, a deal that Donald Trump has disparaged as the worst deal ever negotiated in history.

LIASSON: Right. That's not the first time that you've seen the foreign policy team reinterpret or manage or massage the president's statements. You saw that with the effort to get the president to affirm America's commitment to NATO. Now it's happening, as you said, with the Iran nuclear deal. So this raises the question, who should our allies and enemies believe - apparently not the president, at least not all the time.

SIEGEL: NPR's Mara Liasson, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.