Report: Tillerson described Trump as a 'moron,' was on the verge of resignation

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was on the verge of resigning this past summer amid mounting policy disputes and clashes with the White House, according to multiple senior administration officials who were aware of the situation at the time.

The tensions came to a head around the time President Donald Trump delivered a politicized speech in late July to the Boy Scouts of America, an organization Tillerson once led, the officials said.

Just days earlier, Tillerson had openly disparaged the president, referring to him as a “moron,” after a July 20 meeting at the Pentagon with members of Trump’s national security team and Cabinet officials, according to three officials familiar with the incident.

While it's unclear if he was aware of the incident, Vice President Mike Pence counseled Tillerson, who is fourth in line to the presidency, on ways to ease tensions with Trump, and other top administration officials urged him to remain in the job at least until the end of the year, officials said.

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Michael Flynn: Former National Security Advisor, no longer with the Trump administration
Ivanka Trump: First daughter and presidential adviser
Gen. John Kelly: Former Secretary of Homeland Security, current White House chief of staff
Steve Bannon: Former White House chief strategist, no longer with the Trump administration
Jared Kushner: Son-in-law and senior adviser
Kellyanne Conway: Former Trump campaign manager, current counselor to the president
Reince Priebus: Former White House chief of staff, no longer with the Trump administration
Anthony Scaramucci: Former White House communications director, no longer with the Trump administration
Sarah Huckabee Sanders: White House press secretary
Donald Trump Jr.: First son to President Trump
Sean Spicer: Former White House press secretary, soon to be no longer with the Trump administration
Jeff Sessions: U.S. attorney general
Steve Mnuchin: Secretary of Treasury
Paul Manafort: Former Trump campaign chairman
Carter Page: Former foreign policy adviser to Trump's presidential campaign
Omarosa Manigault: Director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison
Melania Trump: Wife to President Trump and first lady of the United States
Jason Miller: Former White House communications director, no longer with the Trump administration
Hope Hicks: White House Director of Strategic Communications
Mike Dubke: Former White House communications director, no longer with the Trump administration
Stephen Miller: Trump senior policy adviser
Corey Lewandowski: Former Trump campaign manager
Eric Trump: Son to President Trump
Rex Tillerson: Secretary of State
Sebastian Gorka: Former deputy assistant to the president in the Trump administration, no longer in his White House role
Roger Stone: Former Trump campaign adviser, current host of Stone Cold Truth
Betsy DeVos: U.S. Education Secretary
Gary Cohn, director of the U.S. National Economic Council, walks toward Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, July 5, 2017. President Donald Trump's encounter this week at the Group of 20 summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin is raising concerns among veteran American diplomats and analysts about a mismatch between a U.S. president new to global affairs and a wily former Soviet spymaster. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Officials said that the administration, beset then by a series of high-level firings and resignations, would have struggled to manage the fallout from a Cabinet secretary of his stature departing within the first year of Trump’s presidency.

Pence has since spoken to Tillerson about being respectful of the president in meetings and in public, urging that any disagreements be sorted out privately, a White House official said. The official said progress has since been made.

Yet the disputes have not abated. This weekend, tensions spilled out into the open once again when the president seemed to publicly chide Tillerson on his handling of the crisis with North Korea.

NBC News spoke with a dozen current and former senior administration officials for this article, as well as others who are close to the president.

Tillerson, who was in Texas for his son’s wedding in late July when Trump addressed the Boy Scouts, had threatened not to return to Washington, according to three people with direct knowledge of the threats. His discussions with retired Gen. John Kelly, who would soon be named Trump’s second chief of staff, and Defense Secretary James Mattis, helped initially to reassure him, four people with direct knowledge of the exchanges said.

Related: Trump Tweets Tillerson 'Wasting His Time' Talking to North Korea

After Tillerson’s return to Washington, Pence arranged a meeting with him, according to three officials. During the meeting, Pence gave Tillerson a “pep talk,” one of these officials said, but also had a message: the secretary needed to figure out how to move forward within Trump’s policy framework.

Kelly and Mattis have been Tillerson’s strongest allies in the cabinet. In late July, “they did beg him to stay,” a senior administration official said. “They just wanted stability.”

At that time, however, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert responded to speculation that Tillerson was thinking about resigning by saying he was “committed to staying” and was “just taking a little time off” in Texas.

Tillerson's top State Department spokesman, R.C. Hammond, said Tillerson did not consider quitting this past summer. He denied that Tillerson called Trump a “moron.” Hammond said he was unaware of the details of Tillerson’s meetings with Pence.

Hammond said he knew of only one time when the two men discussed topics other than policy: A meeting where 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. He added that whenever the vice president gives advice on how processes could run more smoothly, the advice is a good thing.

Hammond also said that he wouldn’t characterize the secretary’s conversations with Mattis or Kelly as attempts to convince Tillerson to stay in his position.

A Pentagon official close to Mattis denied any awareness of a specific conversation about Tillerson’s future in the administration. But the official said the two men speak all the time and have a regular breakfast together.

The White House declined to comment on the record for this story.

Tillerson and Trump clashed over a series of key foreign policy issues over the summer, including Iran and Qatar. Trump chafed at Tillerson’s attempts to push him – privately and publicly – toward decisions that were at odds with his policy positions, according to officials. Hammond said Tillerson has had no policy differences with Trump. “The president’s policy is his policy,” Hammond said.

In August, Trump was furious with Tillerson over his response to a question about the president’s handling of the racially charged and deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, administration officials said. Trump had said publicly that white nationalists and neo-Nazi sympathizers shared blame for violence with those who came out to protest them.

“The president speaks for himself,” Tillerson said at the time, when asked on “Fox News Sunday” about Trump’s comments.

Hammond said Trump addressed the issue with Tillerson in a meeting the next day. He said that during the meeting, Trump congratulated another White House official, Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert, for his performance on the Sunday news talk shows. Bossert had defended Trump’s controversial pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio.

The president, according to Hammond, told Tillerson he was upset with his comments when he saw them the first time. But, Hammond said Trump told Tillerson, after watching the interview a second and third time, the president understood that Tillerson was trying to say Trump is the best person to convey what his values are.

Still, the message was clear that Trump wanted Tillerson to defend him more, Hammond said.

The frustrations run both ways. Tillerson stunned a handful of senior administration officials when he called the president a “moron” after a tense two-hour long meeting in a secure room at the Pentagon called "The Tank," according to three officials who were present or briefed on the incident. The July 20 meeting came a 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 of the war and comparing the decision-making process on troop levels to the renovation of a high-end New York restaurant, according to participants in the meeting.

It is unclear whether Trump was told of Tillerson’s outburst after the Pentagon meeting or to what extent the president was briefed on Tillerson’s plan to resign earlier in the year.

Tillerson also has complained about being publicly undermined by the president on the administration’s foreign policy agenda, officials said.

Those strains were on display this past weekend when Tillerson said, to the White House’s surprise, that the U.S. is attempting diplomatic talks with North Korea.

Trump quickly took the opposite position, writing on Twitter “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man...,” using his latest epithet for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

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Exxon Mobil Corporation Chairman and Chief Executive Rex Tillerson speaks at a news conference following the Exxon Mobil annual shareholders meeting in Dallas, Texas May 30, 2007. Tillerson told reporters on Wednesday that the construction of the Mackenzie pipeline project in Canada was not viable at current cost levels.

(REUTERS/Mike Stone)

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) and Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson look on at a signing ceremony in the Black Sea resort of Sochi August 30, 2011. Exxon and Russia's Rosneft signed a deal on Tuesday to develop oil and gas reserves in the Russian Arctic, opening up one of the last unconquered drilling frontiers to the global industry No.1.

(REUTERS/Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Pool)

Executives from six major oil companies are sworn in to testify at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on the "Consolidation in the Oil and Gas Industry: Raising Prices?" on Capitol Hill in Washington March 14, 2006. The executives are (L-R) Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil Corp., James Mulva, Chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips, David O'Reilly, Chairman and CEO of Chevron Corp., Bill Klesse, CEO of Valero Energy Corp., John Hofmeister, President of Shell Oil Company and Ross Pillari, President and CEO of BP America Inc.

(Jason Reed / Reuters)

ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, Texas April 21, 2015.

(REUTERS/Daniel Kramer/File Photo)

Chairman, President and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation Rex Tillerson watches a tee shot on the 13th hole during the first round of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament at the Monterey Peninsula Country Club course in Pebble Beach, California, February 6, 2014.

(REUTERS/Michael Fiala)

Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil; John Watson, chairman and CEO of Chevron Corp.; James Mulva, chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips; Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil Co.; and Lamar McKay, president and chairman of BP America Inc.; are sworn in during the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Environment hearing on their safety practices as oil continues to leak into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig - operated by BP - exploded last month.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, Texas April 21, 2015.

(REUTERS/Daniel Kramer/File Photo)

WASHINGTON, DC - May 12: James Mulva, chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips; and Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp.; during the Senate Finance hearing on oil and gas tax incentives.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

Chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation Rex W. Tillerson and Norway Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg attends the United Nations Foundation's global leadership dinner at The Pierre Hotel on November 8, 2011 in New York City.

(Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images)

Rex Tillerson, chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp., left, speaks with Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates Inc., during the 2015 IHS CERAWeek conference in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Tuesday, April 21, 2015. CERAWeek 2015, in its 34th year, will provide new insights and critically-important dialogue with decision-makers in the oil and gas, electric power, coal, renewables, and nuclear sectors from around the world.

(Photographer: F. Carter Smith/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Renda St. Clair and Rex Tillerson attend the reopening celebration at Ford's Theatre on February 11, 2009 in Washington, DC.

(Photo by Abby Brack/Getty Images)

Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, listens during a meeting at the Department of the Interior September 22, 2010 in Washington, DC. Secretary of the Interior Kenneth L. Salazar hosted Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Gulf Oil Spill National Incident Commander Adm. Thad Allen (Ret.), representatives from the private sector and others to discus strengthening the containment abilities to deep water oil and gas well blowouts like the recent BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

(Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

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“...Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!” Trump added in a second tweet.

Asked whether the president still has confidence in Tillerson, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Monday that he does.

Trump has already seen an unusually high level of turnover in his administration, with the departures of his national security adviser, deputy national security adviser, his chief of staff, press secretary, communications director — twice — his chief strategist, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the acting head of the Justice Department. Last Friday Trump accepted the resignation of Tom Price, the Health and Human Services secretary.

One senior administration official described late July as “a tough period of time” for Tillerson. His frustrations appeared to mount in the preceding weeks. Trump publicly undermined Tillerson in June over a dispute between Qatar and other Persian Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Tillerson had called on the countries to ease their blockade of Qatar, yet just hours later Trump said the Saudi-led effort was necessary.

Tillerson also pushed Trump to certify in July that Iran was complying with the 2015 nuclear deal.

Tillerson has been at odds with Trump on other issues as well, arguing against sanctions on Venezuela and reportedly suggesting Israel return to the U.S. $75 million in aid. Tillerson also is seeking to use the implementation of arms deals Trump struck with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as leverage to prod the two countries to resolve the dispute with Qatar, according to U.S. and Arab officials.

Administration officials speculate that Tillerson would be succeeded by Haley if Tillerson were to depart.

Tillerson’s tenure has been rocky from the start. He was confirmed by a Republican-led Senate on 56-to-43 vote. That represents the most votes against a secretary of state in Senate history.

Since then, Tillerson, the former chief executive of ExxonMobil, has been slow to fill jobs within his department and appears to have alienated officials in the White House, the Cabinet and Congress.

He has become known for being difficult to reach and tends to take his time returning phone calls, administration and congressional officials said. Congressional Republicans balked at his proposed cuts to the State Department budget.

“It’s hard to get him to return phone calls,” a senior Republican congressional aide said of Tillerson. “It’s hard to get him to answer letters.”

Hammond said Tillerson is quick to return calls and respond to lawmakers.

Tillerson has clashed with the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who has a broad portfolio that includes policies in the Middle East, officials said.

A second White House official downplayed any tensions between Tillerson and Kushner, noting that Kushner’s efforts on an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement are run through the relevant agencies and that a State Department representative went on his most recent trip to the region.

A third White House official disputed the notion that Tillerson has alienated people in the White House, Cabinet and Congress.

Trump’s July 24 speech at the Boy Scouts gathering struck a political tone unusual for the event, with the president talking about his electoral victory and the “cesspool” of Washington. He also joked about firing his Health and Human Services secretary if congressional Republicans didn’t pass a health care bill. The head of the Boy Scouts later apologized for the political tone of the speech.

A look back: President Trump speaks at Boy Scouts rally

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President Trump speaks at Boy Scouts rally
Boy Scouts listen as US President Donald Trump speaks during the National Boy Scout Jamboree at Summit Bechtel National Scout Reserve in Glen Jean, West Virginia, July 24, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump waves after speaking to Boy Scouts during the National Boy Scout Jamboree at Summit Bechtel National Scout Reserve in Glen Jean, West Virginia, July 24, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump waves after speaking to Boy Scouts during the National Boy Scout Jamboree at Summit Bechtel National Scout Reserve in Glen Jean, West Virginia, July 24, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump waves after speaking to Boy Scouts during the National Boy Scout Jamboree at Summit Bechtel National Scout Reserve in Glen Jean, West Virginia, July 24, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 24: (L-R) Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and HHS Secretary Tom Price walk to Marine One to depart with U.S. President Donald Trump from the White House on July 24, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Trump is traveling to Beaver, West Virginia where is will speak to Boy Scouts at the at the 2017 National Scout Jamboree. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump waves after delivering remarks at the 2017 National Scout Jamboree in Summit Bechtel National Scout Reserve, West Virginia, U.S., July 24, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks at the 2017 National Scout Jamboree in Summit Bechtel National Scout Reserve, West Virginia, U.S., July 24, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
U.S. President Donald Trump reacts as he delivers remarks at the 2017 National Scout Jamboree in Summit Bechtel National Scout Reserve, West Virginia , U.S., July 24, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to delivers remarks at the 2017 National Scout Jamboree in Summit Bechtel National Scout Reserve, West Virginia, U.S., July 24, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to delivers remarks at the 2017 National Scout Jamboree in Summit Bechtel National Scout Reserve, West Virginia, U.S., July 24, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
U.S. President Donald Trump (2nd R) delivers remarks at the 2017 National Scout Jamboree in Summit Bechtel National Scout Reserve, West Virginia, U.S., July 24, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
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Tillerson is an Eagle Scout and a former president of the Boy Scouts. He had appeared at the gathering just three days before Trump. Hammond, his spokesman, said Tillerson was not upset with Trump’s speech. He said Tillerson told him that at the end of the day the scouts are going to remember that the president came to speak at their event, and their parents can answer any questions they might have about the message he delivered.

It’s unclear if the latest disagreement between the White House and Tillerson on North Korea spells an end to the late-July reset.

Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state for political affairs under President George W. Bush, said Trump “completely undercut Tillerson” with his tweets.

“This was a direct public, I thought, repudiation of what Tillerson said,” Burns said. “It feeds the perception that Tillerson does not have a trusting relationship with the president, and that’s very harmful.”

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