President Donald Trump insists that his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson "never threatened to resign" said labeled a news report about tensions between the two men "Fake News."
Trump took to Twitter Thursday morning to criticize and NBC news report that Tillerson was "on the verge" of resigning earlier this year, after months of tensions and reported frustration with the president, and only remained at the urging of Vice President Mike Pence.
The NBC News report also said Tillerson had called Trump a "moron" following a meeting with other top officials at the Pentagon in July.
On Wednesday, Tillerson refuted suggestions that he was close to stepping down.
"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.
When asked about if he referred to Trump as a "moron" 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.
On Capitol Hill 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.
The NBC News report and Tillerson's statement comes 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.'”
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.