NBC News cites three unnamed “officials familiar with the incident” to report that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson referred to President Donald Trump as a “moron” at a July 20 Pentagon meeting. Tillerson is said to have been contemplating resignation at the time.
According to the report, Tillerson “stunned a handful of senior administration officials” by calling Trump a moron after a “tense two-hour meeting in a secure room at the Pentagon called ‘The Tank.’”
The sources seem to be curiously reticent about exactly why Tillerson said this. Much later in the article, NBC identifies them as “three officials who were present or briefed on the incident,” so it is not clear if any of them actually heard Tillerson’s alleged outburst or knows what he was talking about when he dropped the insult.
Earlier in the piece, NBC says Tillerson made his fiery comments after the Pentagon meeting that included “members of Trump’s national security team and Cabinet officials,” so it is unclear exactly who he was talking to. NBC states it is also “unclear whether Trump was told of Tillerson’s outburst after the Pentagon meeting,” and it is also “unclear” if Vice President Mike Pence was “aware of the incident,” which seems rather odd.
Trump continues to have public differences of opinion with Tillerson, but he has not criticized him in the way Donald Trump might normally be expected to respond to someone who called him a moron. The White House said as recently as Monday that Tillerson still has the president’s full confidence. Several White House officials are quoted in the NBC piece downplaying tensions with Tillerson.
Tillerson’s top spokesman, R.C. Hammond, flatly denied to NBC that his boss called Trump a moron, and said Tillerson did not consider resigning over the summer. NBC’s sources say Vice President Mike Pence, White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis labored mightily to persuade Tillerson to stay and become more supportive of the president’s agenda.
According to Hammond, the only instance of Pence discussing a subject other than policy with Tillerson was a meeting in which Pence “asked Tillerson if he thought Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was helpful to the administration, or if he was worried about the role she was playing.”
Without any context for the controversial Tillerson remark from its sources, NBC is left to speculate about why the secretary of state would have called the president a moron. NBC puts considerable effort into implying that Tillerson, an Eagle Scout and former president of the organization, was alienated by President Trump’s “politicized speech” to the Boy Scouts of America, but the beginning of the article mentions that the speech was delivered several days after Tillerson allegedly insulted Trump.
A more likely motivation is suggested when NBC notes the July 20 Pentagon meeting came the day after “a meeting in the White House Situation Room on Afghanistan policy where Trump rattled his national security advisers by suggesting he might fire the top U.S. commander in the war and comparing the decision-making process on troop levels to the renovation of a high-end New York restaurant,” according to sources who were present at that meeting.