The White House said US President Donald Trump was joking when he appeared to question his secretary of state’s intelligence.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Tuesday that the president “never implied that the secretary of state was not incredibly intelligent.”
“He made a joke, no more than that,” she said.
She also said the president has “100 percent confidence” in Tillerson. She said reporters “should get a sense of humor.”
Trump himself also said he has confidence in Tillerson during an Oval Office meeting with Henry Kissinger on Tuesday, telling reporters that he “didn’t undercut anybody.”
Responding to the US president’s remark, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Tuesday Tillerson was “more than fine” with Trump’s joke and that the secretary of state has a “high” IQ.
— CSPAN (@cspan) October 10, 2017
In an interview with Forbes published earlier in the day, Trump implied he was more intelligent than his secretary of state.
“I think it’s fake news,” Trump said regarding reports Tillerson had called him a “moron.” “But if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.”
The explosive interview was published hours before the two men were scheduled to meet at the White House for lunch with Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
Trump’s comment fueled speculation regarding Tillerson’s future as America’s top diplomat, with the secretary of state’s reported “moron” comment during a July meeting at the Pentagon having fueled already existing differences between the men.
Since then White House chief of staff John Kelly has been struggling to keep a lid on the crisis — an effort that has been consistently thwarted by Trump’s tweets and barbed remarks.
After the reports Trump took to Twitter to publicly upbraid the former ExxonMobil CEO for “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with North Korea.
The Twitter rebuke revived rumors that Tillerson is unhappy at his post, but he insists he has no intention of resigning.
Diplomatically crucial time
In Washington, Tillerson, along with Mattis, Kelly and chairman of the joint chiefs Joseph Dunford are increasingly seen as buffer around Trump that contains an impulsive president.
Kelly has worked to control the flow of information that crosses Trump’s desk and imposed a decision-making structure that was absent in the early days of the administration.
“The White House has become an adult day care center,” Senator Bob Corker declared over the weekend, in an astonishing public rebuke from a Republican who campaigned for Trump and chairs the Senate foreign relations committee.
Tillerson’s departure would be a major blow to those hoping to temper Trump and stop what Corker described as “the path to World War III.”
And it could not come at a more sensitive time diplomatically. Trump is poised to confront Iran by questioning a major nuclear deal later this week and appears set on upping tensions with North Korea.
Tillerson is also set to play a major role in preparing Trump’s monster trip to Asia next month, that will take in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Still, it remains far from clear how long a secretary of state who has lost the ear of the president can remain in the post.
“When Cabinet officials continue to work for a president with whom they have fundamental disagreements, nothing good ever really comes of it,” Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University wrote this week.