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Trump Affirms 'Total Confidence' in Tillerson After Bombshell Report

  • Cindy Saine

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson makes a statement at the State Department in Washington, Oct. 4, 2017.

President Donald Trump has reaffirmed his "total confidence" in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hours after an explosive story about tensions between the two men captured the spotlight.

Trump spoke after visiting a hospital in Las Vegas, Nevada, to pay tribute to those impacted by the mass shooting. His remarks came just hours after Tillerson refuted reports that he is on the verge of stepping down.

"First, my commitment to the success of our president and our country is as strong as it was the day I accepted his offer to serve as secretary of state," Tillerson told reporters.

President Donald Trump talks as first lady Melania Trump and surgeon Dr. John Fildes listens at the University Medical Center after Trump met with survivors of the mass shooting, Oct. 4, 2017, in Las Vegas.
President Donald Trump talks as first lady Melania Trump and surgeon Dr. John Fildes listens at the University Medical Center after Trump met with survivors of the mass shooting, Oct. 4, 2017, in Las Vegas.

After listing what he described as a number of foreign policy achievements by the president and his Cabinet, which he described as working together as a team, Tillerson denied he had been on the brink of resigning in July.

"To address a few specifics — the vice president has never had to persuade me to remain because I have never considered leaving this post," Tillerson said.

Tillerson made the statement Wednesday to State Department reporters, the same day NBC News reported the secretary was "on the verge" of resigning earlier this year, after months of tensions and reported frustration with Trump, and only remained at the urging of Vice President Mike Pence.

Speaking later Wednesday in Las Vegas, the president said he was "very honored" by Tillerson's comments, and called the NBC report "fake news."

The NBC News report also said Tillerson had called Trump a "moron" following a meeting with other top officials at the Pentagon in July.

When asked about the comment Wednesday, Tillerson did not deny it. But he said he was not going to deal with "petty" stuff, and instead praised Trump and his foreign policy goals, which he said "break the mold" of what is achievable.

At Wednesday's State Department briefing, spokesperson Heather Nauert explicitly denied that Tillerson had called the president a "moron," saying he does not use that kind of language. Asked about who might have leaked that alleged comment and who may be trying to undermine Tillerson, Nauert refused to speculate, saying only that Tillerson is not the type of person to sow dissension.

WATCH: Tillerson on being secretary of state

On Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Tillerson is in a very frustrating position and is not being supported in the way that he should.

Corker, who is not running for re-election, said he strongly supports the secretary of state and other Cabinet members.

"I think Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis and Chief of Staff Kelly are those people that help separate our country from chaos," he added.

Corker has expressed his own frustration with Trump, saying he should comment as little as possible publicly on North Korea.

Jarrod Agen, an adviser to Vice President Pence, also refuted the NBC story in a written statement sent to VOA.

"The vice president can also confirm that, as the secretary of state made clear, at no time did he and the secretary ever discuss the prospect of the secretary's resignation from the administration. Any reporting to the contrary is categorically false," Agen said.

He also addressed an assertion in the NBC story by Tillerson's senior spokesperson R.C. Hammond that Tillerson and Pence had discussed if U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was being helpful.

FILE - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a high level Security Council meeting on United Nations peacekeeping operations, at U.N. headquarters, in New York, Sept. 20, 2017, as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley looks on.
FILE - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a high level Security Council meeting on United Nations peacekeeping operations, at U.N. headquarters, in New York, Sept. 20, 2017, as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley looks on.

"The vice president has known Ambassador Nikki Haley for many years, holds her in the highest regard, and appreciates her strong service to this administration at the United Nations," Agen said.

Some foreign policy analysts have speculated that if Tillerson ever were to resign, Haley might be a likely choice to replace him as the chief American diplomat.

WATCH: Tillerson on 'erroneous' reports

The NBC News report and Tillerson's statement come just days after Trump appeared to undercut his top diplomat, saying Tillerson is "wasting his time" trying to negotiate with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un.

In a series of tweets the president said: "Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!"

Tillerson, in Beijing on Saturday, had acknowledged the United States has direct diplomatic channels through which to negotiate with Pyongyang about North Korea's continued nuclear and ballistic missile tests.

Veteran foreign policy analyst Michael O'Hanlon, with the Brookings Institution, told VOA he thinks Trump's tweets on Tillerson and North Korea are "regrettable."

"I think it's regrettable that President Trump so directly and tactlessly undercut his secretary of state," O'Hanlon said. "It would have been much wiser, and achieved whatever beneficial effects Trump needed to achieve, to say 'Tillerson has a daunting path ahead, but I wish him well, and North Korea better appreciate that in any negotiation, we will be proceeding from a position of strength with serious and firm demands.'"

FILE - President Donald Trump (right) and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are seen at a Cabinet meeting, at White House in Washington, June 12, 2017.
FILE - President Donald Trump (right) and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are seen at a Cabinet meeting, at White House in Washington, June 12, 2017.

The incident concerning North Korea was the latest in reported tensions between Tillerson and Trump, despite repeated denials from State Department and White House officials.

In an August television interview with Fox News Sunday, Tillerson was asked about Trump's much criticized response to deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, 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.

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 asked specifically about Trump's values, Tillerson replied, "The president speaks for himself," without further explanation.

A Tillerson aide later denied that the remark constituted a criticism of Trump's values, but declined to soften the comment.

Also in August, Axios reported Trump's frustration with Tillerson 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.

VOA's Pete Heinlein and Steven Herman contributed to this report.

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