Barely a week after HHS Secretary Tom Price resigned following reports that he’d spent more than $1 million in taxpayer funds traveling in private jets, speculation that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s head is next on the chopping block has reached a fever pitch.
After reporting earlier in the week that Tillerson had privately criticized Trump, allegedly calling him a “fucking moron”, shortly before the former Exxon CEO was close to submitting his resignation, NBC reported late Thursday that the secretary had been summoned to the White House by Chief of Staff John Kelly for an impromptu meeting to discuss “a path forward.”
Kelly summoned Tillerson, and their ally Defense Secretary James Mattis, to the White House, where the three of them huddled to discuss a path forward, according to three administration officials. The White House downplayed Kelly's decision to stay in Washington, saying he did so to manage day-to-day operations.
Needless to say the president was not happy, and as NBC adds, "Trump was furious when he saw the NBC News report, which was published shortly before 6 a.m. Wednesday. For the next two hours the president fumed inside the White House, venting to Kelly, officials said. He left for Las Vegas shortly after 8 a.m., 20 minutes behind schedule."
Tillerson scrambled to pull together a statement, while his spokesman publicly apologized for his comments about Pence and Haley, saying he “spoke out of line about conversations I wasn’t privy to.” Tillerson delivered a statement praising Trump and insisting he never considered resigning, but it’s what he didn’t say that further enraged Trump, officials said.
Meanwhile Vice President Mike Pence was likewise "fuming" in Phoenix, where he was traveling: he and Tillerson spoke on the phone before the secretary’s public appearance on Wednesday morning.
Pence was incensed upon learning from the NBC report that Tillerson’s top spokesman had said he once privately questioned the value of Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Officials said the spokesman, R.C. Hammond, fabricated an anecdote that Pence had asked Tillerson in a meeting whether Haley, who is seen as a possible successor if Tillerson, is helpful or harmful to the administration.
Tillerson’s initial reluctance to deny that he’d made the “moron” comment during an impromptu press conference on Wednesday infuriated Trump – though the spokeswoman from the state department later denied that Tillerson had made the comment.
Tensions intensified after Trump appeared to directly contradict Tillerson for the second time this week when reports emerged that the president had decided to “decertify” the Iran deal – effectively placing its fate in the hands of Congress – shortly after Tillerson had said that the administration was still weighing its options. Earlier in the week, Trump tweeted that he’d told his secretary of state not to bother pursuing a dialogue with North Korea after Tillerson revealed during a meeting in Beijing that the US had established a direct line of communication with Kim Jong Un’s increasingly isolated regime.
But while Kelly was working to soothe the president’s anger, NBC News reported that Vice President Mike Pence was also angry with Tillerson after his top spokesman publicly shared an anecdote claiming that Pence had once asked Tillerson whether UN Ambassador Nikki Haley was “helpful or harmful” to the administration.
Pence was incensed upon learning from the NBC report that Tillerson’s top spokesman had said he once privately questioned the value of Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Officials said the spokesman, R.C. Hammond, fabricated an anecdote that Pence had asked Tillerson in a meeting whether Haley, who is seen as a possible successor to Tillerson, is helpful or harmful to the administration.
Assuming Tillerson stays on, he will most likely need to find a new chief spokesman. As the public learned when Trump fired former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, once Pence decides he wants somebody gone, they’re done.
Hammond is seen by the White House, particularly Pence’s office, as untrustworthy, officials said. It’s unclear if he will remain in his post, according to three administration officials.
Pence was "very annoyed anyone would misrepresent anything he said, particularly in private meetings," one White House official said.
Speculation about Tillerson’s future in the White House intensified after the Washington Post published a report alleging that the secretary of state often didn’t return the president’s calls, and that the two men often clashed over Tillerson’s “traditional” approach to policies from Iran to climate change to North Korea, as well as Tillerson’s “frustration” at being overruled.
The first signs of a rift between the two men appeared following Trump’s controversial comment that there were good people “on both sides” after a white nationalist demonstrator rammed his car into a crowd of protesters during a White Nationalist rally in Charlottesville, killing one and injuring dozens more. When questioned about Trump’s comment, Tillerson famously said that the president “speaks for himself.”
In summary, the list of senior administration officials that have been shown the door is already disconcertingly long. The list includes:
- Tom Price
- Sebastian Gorka
- Steve Bannon
- Anthony Scaramucci
- Reince Priebus
- Sean Spicer
- Michael Dubke
- Walter Shaub
- James Comey
- Michael Flynn
- Sally Yates
- Preet Bharara
- Katie Walsh
- Mark Corralo
- Michael Short
… Will Tillersons’ be the next name added to this list? Or will this pass, much like the rumors that Trump intended to get rid of Jeff Sessions only to have his mind changed in the last moment? Or will Tillerson invoke the "suicide pact" he reportedly made with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of Defense James Mattis?