US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson makes a statement to the press at the State Department in Washington, DC, October 4, 2017. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson denied Wednesday he had considered resigning from Donald Trump's cabinet and dismissed a report that he had called the president a "moron" as "petty nonsense." "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, denying an NBC News report. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSONJIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, calls a news conference to deny his reference to 'moron' but what has he actually said? © AFP

People say silly things when they think they are talking privately — or if they are the British foreign secretary. But it surely is a moment when the US secretary of state is forced to call a press conference to deny he called his president a “moron”.

Yet this week Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon boss turned chief diplomat, broke new ground by calling such a news conference but not actually using it to deny the claim. These are indeed silky diplomatic skills. He did deny, however, that Mike Pence, the US vice-president, had been forced to talk him out of resigning in exasperation at Donald Trump’s foreign policy outbursts. The Financial Times has seen a secret imaginary early draft of the statement.

“Good morning. There were some reports this morning that I want to address. I want to begin by stating that my commitment to this president and this job is as strong as it was on the day James Baker forced me to take it.

Let me tell you, this president is smart. When you look at the smartest presidents throughout our history he would easily make the top 50 — top 45 even, maybe higher. I mean, Millard Fillmore — now there was a moron. Add in Harding and Buchanan, this president doesn’t look so bad.

I know there are people who criticise him, but let me tell you President Trump has broken the mould of what is achievable. You only need to look at the list of his legislative achievements to see the difference between him and other politicians. And he is breaking the mould in foreign policy too, building new ties, building a new world: a world with Russians in the justice department and Trump hotels in Novosibirsk.

And he has created remarkable political consensus at home. General Mattis at defence and I are working incredibly closely together and hardly a day goes by when we do not discuss the latest example of the president’s unique grasp of military or strategic affairs.

And it is not just Gen Mattis; there are others in this administration with whom I have been able to build close diplomatic ties. Ambassador Haley, Treasury secretary Mnuchin. Add General Kelly and you already have four people within this government that I am able to work with.

So it is not true that Vice-President Pence, a man I deeply admire, had to talk me out of resigning because I have considered quitting this job.

When I wake up in the morning my first thoughts are about the safety of our citizens at home and abroad. So when you think about it, the idea that I would leave the president in sole charge of foreign policy is obviously not true. I did not seek this job, but now that I am here, I dare not leave.

I have heard that some people are saying that I am unhappy with the way the president conducts foreign policy through aggressive tweets so I have to tell you that I am not in the least worried to hear that Twitter is doubling its character count. That will allow the president to add even more nuance to his statements.

And I want to be clear here and now that neither I nor any of the 11 remaining staff at the State Department are in any way worried at President Trump referring to the unstable leader of North Korea as “little rocket man”.

We saw in the election how effective such jibes were against his opponents. His barbs destroyed Low-energy Jeb, Lyin’ Ted and Crooked Hillary, so I see no reason for concern just because his latest target has immediate access to intercontinental ballistic missiles.

What President Trump brings to the table is an exciting variant of the old familiar good cop/bad cop routine; we call our version the good cop/mad cop with his finger on the nuclear button routine.

As to these news reports, let me just say: I’m not from DC, but where I’m from — a major international company that never went into Chapter 11 — we don’t deal with petty nonsense. I have been here 10 months, which in this administration makes me a veteran. I have outlasted a national security adviser, a chief of staff, two communications directors and a health secretary. So I am going back to work. You may not hear from me much, but I’ll be here as long as the president wants me, hopefully longer.”

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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