WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed focused this week on rebooting his image as a beleaguered Cabinet member on the outs with his boss and his own employees – holding a rare town hall with employees, promising foreign trips into 2018 and saying he is “learning” to enjoy his job.
But then he went off script by offering another invitation for diplomatic talks with nuclear-armed North Korea, putting him at odds once again with President Donald Trump and senior White House officials, who are increasingly exasperated with the secretary of state and say he cannot remain in his job for the long term.
The episode highlights the deep distrust between the White House and Tillerson and suggests how difficult it will be for the relationship to continue. While Trump and Tillerson have clashed on several policy issues – including negotiating with North Korea, the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and planning to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem – much of the distance between them seems personal and probably irreversible, White House officials said.
Tillerson, one White House official said, “had not learned his lesson from the last time,” when Trump publicly rebuked his top diplomat on Twitter over the wisdom of talking to North Korea.
A senior U.S. official said foreign diplomats and leaders often ask if Tillerson is speaking for the administration and when he will depart. Another White House aide said White House officials, diplomats and other Cabinet secretaries largely deem the former ExxonMobil chief executive “irrelevant.”
Inside the White House, this person said, there are fairly regular conversations about who will replace Tillerson even as he remains in the job. CIA Director Mike Pompeo, for example, may no longer be the leading choice because it means he would not brief Trump every day, and the president likes him in that role, the official said.
“I think our allies know at this point he’s not really speaking for the administration,” this Trump official said – a particularly sharp slap given that Tillerson has sought to be a buffer and interpreter for allies angry or bewildered by some of Trump’s actions.
West Wing officials spoke about Tillerson on the condition of anonymity to describe internal personnel dynamics.
Raj Shah, a White House spokesman, said Trump “is very pleased with his entire national security team, which includes Secretary Tillerson.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tillerson “enjoys a strong relationship with the president. Most importantly, they share a commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, the security of our homeland and the protection of our allies.”
Nauert noted that Tillerson had lunch with Trump on Thursday. The discussion included North Korea, she said.
The latest dust-up began Tuesday when Tillerson caught the White House by surprise with remarks at the Atlantic Council that appeared to mark a shift away from the Trump administration’s…