Under fire Tillerson forced to deny rift with Trump

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Washington (AFP)

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson firmly denied Wednesday that he had fallen out with Donald Trump and vowed to remain in post to pursue the president's "America First" agenda.

Trump and Tillerson's relationship has been the subject of media speculation for months, and on Wednesday an explosive report suggested the top diplomat had even considered resigning.

According to the NBC News story, which cited "multiple senior administration officials," Tillerson had also referred to Trump as a "moron" in front of colleagues at a July 20 Pentagon meeting.

Afterward the secretary had, the report alleges, met with Vice President Vice Pence, who urged him to show more respect but also persuaded him not to resign.

Appearing before reporters at a hastily organized news conference in the State Department, Tillerson denied the report and pledged full support for the president and his agenda.

"There's never been a consideration in my mind to leave," the former oil executive said.

"I serve at the appointment of the president and I am here for as long as the president feels I can be useful to achieving his objectives."

The former ExxonMobil chief executive's tenure at the State Department has drawn scorn from Trump's opponents, from former diplomats and from the Washington policy elite.

He has also been faced with an extraordinary array of foreign policy challenges -- from North Korean nuclear threats to Russian subversion to attacks on US diplomats in Cuba.

But his efforts have been overshadowed -- some would say undermined -- by Trump's un-diplomatic style and his streams of taunting tweets stirring international tensions.

- 'Trump's dog' -

A highly-respected figure in the oil business, the 65-year-old Texan has been attacked for failing to develop his own political profile and refusing to fight his department's corner.

It is commonplace for him to be described by pundits as the weakest secretary ever -- and one scathing Washington Post column this week called him "Donald Trump's dog."

But his public loyalty to Trump hasn't always been rewarded with support from the top.

On Sunday, as Tillerson flew home from meeting with top Chinese officials, Trump tweeted that his top envoy was "wasting his time" in trying to probe North Korea's willingness to talks.

The State Department denied this was a reprimand, insisting Trump had been warning Kim Jong-Un that he should respond quickly to diplomatic overtures or face tougher action.

And, on Tuesday, Tillerson's cabinet ally Defense Secretary Jim Mattis pointedly told lawmakers at a congressional hearing that he backed the secretary's North Korea strategy.

But Trump's Twitter outburst nevertheless triggered a new round of speculation.

Richard Haass, former chief policy adviser to then secretary Colin Powell and the 15-year president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations, said Tillerson should go.

"Rex Tillerson has been dealt a bad hand by the Potus & has played it badly. For both reasons he cannot be effective SecState & should resign," he tweeted Wednesday.

Nevertheless, Tillerson came out fighting.

Tillerson refused to directly address the damaging allegation that he had called Trump a "moron" in front of fellow cabinet officials at a meeting in the Department of Defense.

Instead, he alleged that unidentified others were spreading malicious rumors to tear down the president's agenda, and vowed: "I do not and I will not operate that way."

He praised his cabinet colleagues, cited their main achievements, and promised: "There's much to be done and we're just getting started."

And he spoke warmly of Trump.

"He loves his country. He puts Americans and America first. He's smart. He demands results wherever he goes," Tillerson said.

- 'Categorically false' -

Shortly after Tillerson's statement, Trump tweeted in support.

"The @NBCNews story has just been totally refuted by Sec. Tillerson and @VP Pence. It is #FakeNews. They should issue an apology to AMERICA!" he declared.

Asked whether Trump has confidence in Tillerson, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said: "As we've said many times before, if the president doesn't have confidence in somebody, they will no longer be in their position."

Pence's office also issued a statement, thanking Tillerson for his "strong affirmation of President Trump's America First foreign policy agenda."

The vice president's statement also insisted that Pence had never discussed Tillerson's possible resignation, stating: "Any reporting to the contrary is categorically false."