What Was Behind Rex Tillerson’s Pro-Trump News Conference? – John Cassidy | The New Yorker

What Was Behind Rex Tillerson’s Pro-Trump News Conference?

John Cassidy | The New Yorker

Early Wednesday morning, NBC News was up with a big story: The Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, came close to resigning this summer, it said, and he had to be talked out of it by Vice-President Mike Pence.

Citing three unnamed sources, the report also said that, on July 20th, after a meeting at the Pentagon in which Donald Trump and his advisers discussed military options in Afghanistan, Tillerson referred to the President as a “moron.”   

Within hours, Tillerson was standing at a lectern, addressing reporters. This in itself was unusual. In keeping with his status as the former chief executive of ExxonMobil, a hidebound business empire that traces its roots to John D. Rockefeller, Tillerson has generally adopted a dismissive attitude toward reporters.

Usually, he barely tells them where in the world he is going. Calling them in for an unscheduled announcement raised everybody’s expectations. Was he resigning? He was not. He was refuting.

“To address a few specifics that have been erroneously reported this morning, the Vice-President has never had to persuade me to remain as Secretary of State, because I have never considered leaving this post,” Tillerson said, in his Texan twang. “Let me tell you what I’ve learned about this President, whom I did not know before taking this office. He loves his country. He puts Americans and America first. He’s smart.”

The last assertion was evidently meant to address the “moron” quote. Tillerson didn’t explicitly refer to the NBC News report, however, soon after he had finished reading his statement, a reporter asked him to do so.

“I’m not going to deal with petty stuff like that,” Tillerson replied. “The places I come from, we don’t deal with that kind of petty nonsense. And it is intended to do nothing but divide people. And I’m just not going to be part of this effort to divide this Administration.”

Parts of the media quickly leapt on that response as a non-denial. Within minutes, the Daily Beast was running the headline “Rex Tillerson Will Neither Quit Nor Deny He Called Trump A Moron.”

Another headline, at the Washington Post’s Fix column, said, “Rex Tillerson might as well have just admitted he called Trump a ‘moron.’ ”

On MSNBC, meanwhile, Stephanie Ruhle, one of the NBC News reporters responsible for the scoop, informed viewers, “My source didn’t just say that he called him a moron. He said an ‘effing moron.’ ”

Later in the day, Heather Nauert, the State Department’s spokeswoman, issued a more explicit denial on Tillerson’s behalf. “The Secretary did not use that type of language to speak about the President of the United States,” Nauert insisted. “He did not say that.”

But if Nauert’s statement is true, and Tillerson didn’t use the M-word, you have to ask yourself: Why not?

The Pentagon meeting on July 20th came a day after another meeting of Trump’s national-security team, held in the White House Situation Room. According to a previous report by NBC News, Trump stunned many of those present by threatening to fire the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, whom he hadn’t even met, and suggesting that he could get better advice by talking to someone far less senior.

He regaled those in attendance with a story about how, back in the eighties, he hired an expensive consultant to advise him on renovating the “21” Club, in midtown Manhattan, only to discover that he would have been better off listening to one of the waiters.

Five days after that display of contempt for the expertise of his experts, Trump delivered a speech at the annual Boy Scout Jamboree, in which he boasted about the size of his electoral vote, called Washington a “sewer,” and joked about firing Tom Price, who was then the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Tillerson has lifelong ties to the Scouts. His father worked for the Boy Scouts of America. He himself was an Eagle Scout, and from 2010 to 2012 he served as the organization’s national president. It isn’t hard to imagine what he must have thought of Trump’s speech.

And yet, rather than telling off the President and moving back to Texas, Tillerson stayed in his post. He gritted through it, just as he must have, this past weekend, after Trump took to Twitter and informed the world that his Secretary of State was “wasting his time” trying to reach a diplomatic settlement with North Korea. (This Trump outburst came as Tillerson was getting back from China, where he had met with top Chinese officials, including the President, Xi Jinping.)

But Tillerson also seems determined to carry on as best he can, partly by working with officials in other agencies to navigate around Trump. “What we have accomplished, we have done as a team,” he said in his statement. He cited the tightening of economic sanctions on North Korea; the intensification of the military assault on ISIS inside Syria; and the adoption of a new strategy in Afghanistan, which Trump, despite the scathing attitude he initially adopted, eventually signed onto.

As members of the “team,” Tillerson mentioned Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; Nikki Haley, the Ambassador to the United Nations; and the Defense Secretary, James Mattis.

“General Mattis and I communicate virtually every day, and we agree there must be the highest level of coördination between our diplomatic efforts and our military efforts,” he said. “You can’t have a stronger partner than a Secretary of Defense who embraces diplomacy. And I hope he feels he has the partner he needs at the State Department.”

Having name-checked some of the principals, Tillerson went on: “And this is just the beginning of the list of partners and friends across the government who are all working for the American people. There is much to be done, and we’re just getting started.” Yet, despite his efforts to pursue a diplomatic solution to the North Korea crisis, it is debatable how much, if anything, Tillerson has really accomplished this year. A number of national-security experts, including Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, have called on him to quit. “Rex Tillerson has been dealt a bad hand by the Potus & has played it badly,” Haass tweeted on Wednesday. “For both reasons he cannot be effective SecState & should resign.”

Tillerson is no George C. Marshall or Dean Acheson — that’s for sure. Since taking office, he has spent far too much time on his personal crusade to downsize the State Department, and too little time surrounding himself with experienced diplomats and foreign-policy specialists.

But, if Tillerson were to quit, Trump would hardly replace him with anyone in the mold of Marshall or Acheson. (John Bolton, anybody?)

Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke for many people in Washington on Wednesday when he said, “I think Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis, and Chief of Staff Kelly are those people who help separate our country from chaos . . . I hope they stay because they’re valuable to the national security of our nation.”

In any case, Tillerson seems to be staying put, at least for now.

This post has been updated to include Senator Corker’s comments.

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  • Clyde Duncan  On October 8, 2017 at 6:38 am

    Is Trump Really a ‘Moron,’ as Tillerson Said, or Just Racist and Obnoxious?

    From Puerto Rico to Russia-gate, Trump has proven his propensity to shoot himself in the foot

    Chemi Shalev | Haaretz

    Winston Churchill, savior of Western civilization and arguably the greatest British leader in history, had some dark sides that have receded in memory in the shadow of his epic stand against Adolf Hitler.

    Churchill was a white supremacist who opposed India’s independence, supported concentration camps in South Africa, viewed Arabs as degenerate horse thieves and backed Zionism, among other reasons, as an antidote to Jewish Bolshevism’s war on the capitalist West.

    Churchill was also a champion of eugenics, which aimed to improve the human race by weeding out undesirables, a view that was popular in both Britain and the U.S.A. until it emerged that the Nazis were taking it to its logical extreme.

    Several decades before that, however, Churchill advocated sterilization of the mentally disabled as well as their isolation in internment camps in which they would be prevented from reproducing.

    Churchill was one of the main supporters of the Mental Deficiency Act legislated by the British Parliament in 1913, which replaced the 1886 Idiots Act.

    In addition to people whose moral corruption cannot be corrected, the Act defined three levels of mental deficiency:

    Worst off were “idiots”, who needed protection from themselves; then “imbeciles”, from whom society needed protection; and then the “feeble-minded”, those with the lightest mental impairment, who needed constant training and supervision in order to function in society.

    The law allowed authorities to detain the mentally impaired and to intern them in homes, camps or so-called colonies:

    Over 65,000 were interned in Britain and a similar number in the United States of America, although America also instituted mass sterilization of the mentally impaired, which the British did not.

    The United States of America had a similar, though not identical, classification of the mentally impaired, which was heavily influenced by the advent of IQ tests.

    “Idiots” were those with IQs lower than 25, “imbeciles” had IQs lower than 50, but the term “feeble-minded”, which was used in Britain, was replaced by another term coined in 1910 by psychologist Henry Goddard. Those with IQs from 51 to 70 would henceforth be known as “morons”.

    All of these terms were eventually deemed to be derogatory and were removed from professional lexicons by the early 1970s, along with the general change in society’s attitude toward the intellectually disabled, as they are called today.

    The term “moron”, along with “idiot” and “imbecile”, joined the ever-growing stock of insults that include “stupid”, “dumb”, “cretin”, “ignoramus”, “nitwit,” “simpleton”, “numbskull” and the like.

    But the word “moron” is still pejorative enough that it forced U.S.A. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to humiliate himself in front of the country on Wednesday after NBC reported that he had used it over the summer to depict U.S.A. President Donald Trump.

    In a rare appearance before television cameras, Tillerson praised Trump’s diplomatic wisdom with superlatives worthy of Bismarck, Metternich and Kissinger put together, though he noticeably refrained from denying that he had called Trump a “moron.”

    That task was left to U.S.A. State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert, who asserted that Tillerson wouldn’t use such language. Stephanie Ruhl, one of the NBC reporters with the scoop, admitted that Nauert was right:

    According to her sources, Tillerson hadn’t called Trump a “moron” but a “fucking moron.” True to the principle that one can always find an embarrassing Trump tweet for just about everything, New York Magazine promptly located the 2014 tweet in which Trump showcased a caricature of a Founding Father telling colleagues:

    “I keep thinking we should include something in the constitution in case the people elect a fucking moron.” Trump probably meant it as a dig at former U.S.A. President Barack Obama.

    Ruhl maintained that not only had Tillerson used the offensive term to describe Trump, but that U.S.A. Vice President Pence, U.S.A. Secretary of Defense Mattis and then-Homeland Security chief John Kelly had to dissuade the Secretary of State from resigning.

    Ruhl, whose report was published as Trump was making his way to a Las Vegas still reeling from the horrific shoot-out last Sunday night, said that Tillerson’s tirade came after Trump’s monumentally offensive speech in July to thousands of boy scouts, in which he dissed Obama, praised himself and seemed to be using sexual innuendo to describe the lives of wealthy people with yachts.

    Tillerson, who devoted many years of his life to the scouts’ movement as he was climbing to the top of Exxon’s corporate ladder, blew his top and called Trump a “moron” – and probably nastier things as well.

    He wasn’t the first and won’t be the last, of course. Stupidity is one of the more easily accessible and widespread explanations for Trump’s behavior.

    It’s no coincidence, of course, that his election resurrected the futuristic cult classic “Idiocracy” about a dumbed down America that chooses a loutish porn actor as president.

    It’s true that Trump has claimed in the past that his IQ is much higher than that of Obama or of comedian John Stewart, but in that case, he’s doing an excellent job of concealing his intelligence, as his visit this week to Puerto Rico showed.

    Trump came to the island under a cloud of criticism over the federal government’s allegedly slow response to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Maria as well his own dismissive attitude toward Puerto Ricans and their leaders, which stood in stark contrast to the tone of his message in the hurricane-hit states of Florida and Texas.

    But rather than trying to cheer up Puerto Ricans, as he did in Texas, or console them, as he would later do in Las Vegas, Trump insulted the island’s residents on their home turf. He told them they should be grateful they were not hit with a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.

    He didn’t stop complaining about the drain of Puerto Rican recovery on the federal budget, which he didn’t even mention in Texas or Florida.

    And to cap it all off, Trump was filmed tossing out paper towels to his audience in a scene deemed by one broadcaster as “the least presidential ever”.

    Some people ascribe Trump’s behavior in such events to obnoxious racism rather than stupidity.

    Prejudice and racial stereotypes are such a prominent feature of his personality, they maintain, that he just can’t keep them under lock.

    He has described himself as ‘the least racist person ever,” but since he launched his presidential run by describing Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers, Trump has described Puerto Ricans as lazy, Muslims as wannabe terrorists, African-Americans as thugs, Jews as proficient with money and women as inferior sexual objects. It’s only among neo-Nazis, apparently, that Trump has found “some fine people.”

    Others cite Trump’s sensational victory in the elections – assuming that it wasn’t all the result of a Russian sting operation – as proof of his political smarts.

    According to this view, all of Trump’s scandals, controversies, insults and inanities are but a ploy aimed at rallying his base, first to win the elections and then as leverage against the unruly Republican Party.

    Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Trump is a smart guy pretending to be a dunce.

    If that’s true, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be worried by Barak Ravid’s report on Wednesday that Trump told the United Nations’ Secretary General that the prime minister is more problematic than Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

    If Trump is a “moron,” on the other hand, as Tillerson testified, then his words about Netanyahu should be taken as seriously as his assertions about Obama’s birth certificate, his support for Marine Le Pen in the French elections and his praise for the homicidal Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who will have the privilege of hosting Trump next month.

    The problem with the Trump-is-actually-clever theory is that his outlandish statements and unfounded assertions don’t just harm America’s international image or divide its own population – they often do the most damage to Trump himself.

    The U.S.A. president has shot himself in the foot so regularly that it is only natural to assume he may not be the sharpest pencil in the box.

    He fired FBI Director James Comey, a move which Steve Bannon described as the worst presidential mistake ever, but then made things much worse for himself by admitting – contrary to the official line – that he did so because of the investigation of his ties to Russia.

    Trump made sure that even if Special Counsel Robert Mueller didn’t collect enough evidence on the alleged collusion, he would always be able to nail Trump with obstruction of justice.

    The same is true of Trump’s ham-handed effort to concoct a cover story for his son Donald’s hitherto unreported meeting with a Russian lawyer with close ties to the Kremlin, which fell apart within hours.

    Or the time he undermined administration efforts to claim that his Muslim ban was anything but – by confirming that this is exactly what it was. And so on and so forth.

    Intelligence is no guarantee of success, of course. Jimmy Carter had an IQ of 176, but most Americans consider him to be the worst U.S.A. president in modern times.

    Trump came to the White House with less useful or general knowledge than his predecessors, but his uniqueness lies with the fact that he seems uninterested in learning.

    He disdains the mainstream media, doesn’t trust his intelligence briefings and seems to rely on Fox News and even loonier right-wing news sites for his basic information about the world.

    He has admitted that he often makes decisions without knowing the facts, not a trait usually associated with the astute.

    Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo wrote an article about Trump’s suspected dimness, which spawned the term “Trump’s Razor” after “Occam’s Razor”, of which Netanyahu is fond.

    Whereas Occam’s Razor stipulates that where there are several possible explanations for something – the simplest one is usually correct,

    Trump’s Razor says that where there are several possible explanations for something Trump has said or done – the stupidest is always the right one.

    But even if we assume that Trump is far from stupid, and definitely not a “moron”, most people would agree that both his election and his presidency are an insult to the intelligence of the United States of America – as well as the world.

  • guyaneseonline  On October 8, 2017 at 8:27 am

    Trump says ‘only one thing will work’ with nuclear-armed North Korea

    President says Pyongyang ‘making fools of US negotiators’ for 25 years
    Trump refuses to elaborate and criticises secretary of state again

  • Clyde Duncan  On October 10, 2017 at 6:41 pm

  • Clyde Duncan  On October 10, 2017 at 7:45 pm

    From Donald Trump: A New Low

    James Fallows | The Atlantic

    Trump Tweet: Mayor of San Juan, who was complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by Democrats you must be nasty to Trump.

    Donald Trump who is at one of his golf courses this morning.

    The purpose of my 152-installment Trump Time Capsule series during the 2016 campaign was to record, in real time, things Donald Trump said or did that were wholly outside the range for previous serious contenders for the White House.

    I’ve resisted continuing that during his time in office, because the nature of the man is clear.

    But his Twitter outburst this morning — as he has left Washington on another trip to one of his golf courses, as millions of U.S.A. citizens are without water or electricity after the historic devastation of Hurricane Maria, as by chance it is also Yom Kippur — deserves note.

    It is a significant step downward for him, and perhaps the first thing he has done in office that, in its coarseness, has actually surprised me.

    I explained the difference, for me, between shock and surprise when it comes to Trump, in this item last week.

    Temperamentally, intellectually, and in terms of civic and moral imagination, he is not fit for the duties he is now supposed to bear.

    His first tweet, at the top of this item, dramatized his inability to conceive of any event, glorious or tragic, in terms other than what it means about him.

    People are dying in Puerto Rico; they have lost their homes and farms; children and the elderly are in danger. And what he sees is, “nasty to Trump.”

    That was followed by:

    … Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They …

    Trump this morning.

    This is an outright attack on the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, whose passionate appeals for her citizens would evoke compassion and support from any normal person — and from other politicians – would stimulate at least a public stance of sympathy.

    I can think of no other example of a president publicly demeaning American officials in the middle of coping with disaster.

    There were nasty “God’s punishment!” remarks about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, but they did not come from the White House or George W. Bush.

    And then, this Donald Trump tweet:

    … want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on island doing a fantastic job.

    They “want everything to be done for them.” It is impossible to tell whether this is a conscious racist dog-whistle by Trump — these people! always looking for a handout — or whether it is instinctive.

    Either way, it is something that no other modern president would have said in public, and that no one who understood the duties of the office could have done.


    A man who can say these things — from a golf course, while millions of his fellow citizens are in dire straits, and during an emergency that is worse because of his own narcissistic inattention — does not understand the job.

    This has not happened before. It is not normal. It should not be acceptable. The United States of America is a big, resilient country, but a man like this can do severe damage to it and the world — and at the moment, he is leaving many Americans in mortal peril.

    During the campaign, I argued that the greatest responsibility for Trump’s rise lay not with the man himself — he is who he is, he can’t help it — but with those Republicans who know what he is, and continue to look the other way.

    Their responsibility for the carnage of this era increases by the day, and has grown by quite a lot this weekend.

    As it happens, I wrote and published that preceding 2-paragraphs a week ago. The Republicans’ responsibility is all the graver now, and deepens by the day.

  • Clyde Duncan  On October 10, 2017 at 8:15 pm

    Among the things the Trump era has taught us: the difference in nuance between shock and surprise.

    Donald Trump in office has delivered a nonstop series of shocks, no one of which can really be considered a surprise.

    – James Fallows “Trump’s Shocking Recklessness” | The Atlantic

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