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Trump Administration Sending Mixed Messages About Secretary Of State Tillerson


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has tried to deny criticism that he is gutting the State Department and that he doesn't have a good relationship with President Trump, but the stories keep coming. Several news outlets reported today that Trump will soon replace Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Whether or not that happens, the reports are undermining the secretary of state. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: President Trump didn't exactly offer his secretary of state any words of support when he was asked whether he plans to replace Rex Tillerson in the coming weeks.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He's here. Rex is here.

KELEMEN: A White House spokesperson added there are no personnel announcements at this time. Over at the State Department, spokesperson Heather Nauert says Tillerson serves at the pleasure of the president.


HEATHER NAUERT: The secretary is someone whose feathers don't get ruffled very easily. He kind of, you know, brushed this off today. He's heard these kinds of stories before. And he's just going on about his business.

KELEMEN: But one of Tillerson's supporters on Capitol Hill, Senator Bob Corker, is worried about these reports.


BOB CORKER: And it's been evident to me that for some time somebody is, you know, seeking to undermine his presence here. I don't know who that is.

KELEMEN: The chairman of the foreign relations committee sees Tillerson as a steady hand.


CORKER: As you know, I support strongly what he's doing around the world diplomatically, especially with the North Korean situation, but in so many other places.

KELEMEN: But just as the administration is sending mixed signals about the future of Tillerson, there's also confusion abroad about the Trump administration's foreign policy, including on North Korea. Tillerson has been trying to keep the door open for diplomacy and has been nudging China to scale back oil supplies as a way to pressure Pyongyang to negotiate.


REX TILLERSON: We're really asking them to please restrain more of the oil, not cut it off completely.

KELEMEN: The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, is far more strident, telling the U.N. Security Council this week that all countries should completely sever trade and diplomatic ties with Pyongyang. In language much more in line with President Trump, Haley says North Korea is bringing the world closer to war.


NIKKI HALEY: And if war comes, make no mistake; the North Korean regime will be utterly destroyed.

KELEMEN: Today Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, blasted the Trump administration for trying to provoke Pyongyang rather than opening a dialogue.


SERGEY LAVROV: (Speaking Russian).

KELEMEN: "If they want to find a pretext for destroying North Korea they should say it openly," Lavrov said. As for the calls on countries to cut ties with North Korea, a U.N. spokesperson pointed out that it's important that avenues remain open to find a political solution. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.