Speculation is rife in Washington that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may soon leave the administration, following comments he and an aide made to reporters over the past two days.
Tillerson lunched Monday with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. Later in the day, Pence was meeting with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. The coincidence of meetings led White House observers to comment on the possibility that Haley might be tapped to take over should Tillerson leave.
In a television interview with "Fox News Sunday," Tillerson was asked about Trump’s much criticized response to deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this month, following a rally by white supremacists which resulted in clashes with counterprotesters.
Trump sparked outrage by initially blaming both sides for the unrest. Lawmakers from Trump's Republican Party and many social commentators accused the president of failing to single out unacceptable racial partisans for condemnation.
The top U.S. diplomat was asked this week whether Trump's comments, which were seen as equating white-supremacist sentiments with those of far-left demonstrators, reflected the nation's values.
Tillerson said at first: "I don't believe anyone doubts the American people's values or the commitment of the American government, or the government's agencies to advancing those values and defending those values."
When TV host Chris Wallace followed up by asking specifically about Trump’s values, Tillerson replied, "The president speaks for himself," without further explanation.
A Tillerson aide Monday denied that the remark constituted a criticism of Trump’s values, but declined to soften the comment.
"The values start from the Constitution," the unidentified aide told CNN Television. "The president's job is to uphold those values. Did he do the best job ever responding to Charlottesville? Nope. But that doesn't mean America changes."
The aide added, "That is why the president speaks for himself, because the Constitution speaks for the country."
The back-to-back comments by Tillerson and his aide raised eyebrows among White House observers.
Thomas Whalen, political science professor at Boston University, said a statement that the Constitution and not the president speaks for the country "shows contempt for Trump’s authoritarian style of presidential management." He described the Tillerson aide's words as "a farewell to Trump."
The news website Axios on Monday reported that Trump’s frustration with Tillerson had bubbled over after a recent meeting on Afghanistan.
"Rex just doesn't get it; he's totally establishment in his thinking," Trump said, according to a source quoted by Axios.
The website reported that Tillerson was at odds with Trump on several foreign policy questions, including tensions in Qatar and sanctions against Venezuela, and that administration officials were having trouble understanding why the secretary had not filled senior political jobs at the State Department.
Tillerson's spokesman, R.C. Hammond, blamed a "busted" system, according to the Axios report. The website quoted Hammond saying, "The secretary sends over recommendations and they sit on the dock."
Tillerson’s departure would only add to the confusion that has characterized the first months of the administration, according to politics-watchers who spoke to VOA.
"Trump doesn’t have a deep bench," said Joshua Sandman, an expert on the presidency at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. "[New chief of staff] John Kelly is doing an excellent job of trying to bring order to a chaotic situation, and Kelly would be more oriented toward keeping somebody like Tillerson and [chief economic adviser] Gary Cohn, because these are very solid people."
Cohn also has sharply criticized Trump's comments on race-related political issues.
However, Sandman said appointing someone like Nikki Haley, who he said has maintained "a high profile" for the United States at the United Nations, would go a long way toward easing concerns if Tillerson were to leave.
The secretary of state hinted at his dissatisfaction with Trump’s attitudes on racial issues earlier this month in a speech to a group of students at the State Department.
"We do not honor, nor do we promote or accept hate speech in any form," Tillerson said.
"Those who embrace it poison our public discourse and they damage the very country that they claim to love," the secretary said. "So we condemn racism, bigotry in all its forms. Racism is evil; it is antithetical to America’s values. It’s antithetical to the American idea."
Hammond added fuel to the speculation Monday when he tweeted a recent comment by Tillerson who noted that free-speech rights guaranteed by the Constitution and by centuries of political tradition are "what sets us apart from every other government regime in the world."
Cindy Saine contributed to this report.