The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rex Tillerson was startled that Trump told reporters he had made up his mind on Iran deal

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson answered questions on Sept. 20, after President Trump's said he had "decided" on action on the Iran nuclear deal. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: AMR ALFIKY/The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — With a chatty boss like President Trump, message discipline has not exactly been scrupulously attended within his administration. Especially by the boss himself.

So when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson briefed reporters here Wednesday night following a private meeting with Iranian officials on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, he declared that Trump was "still considering" whether to decertify Iran over violations of the U.N.-backed nuclear deal ahead of a deadline next month.

A reporter quickly corrected Tillerson: Trump actually had said publicly just hours earlier that he had made up his mind. "I have decided," the president said. "I'll let you know."

When asked on Sept. 20 whether the U.S. will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, President Trump said he had made a decision but declined to reveal it. (Video: The Washington Post)

Tillerson looked sheepish. Okay, he acknowledged, the president had indeed said as much "I think in a 'press avail' or a spray somewhere." (A spray, in White House parlance, is akin to a photo-op in which the president occasionally makes brief remarks or answers shouted questions from reporters, which is what happened in Trump's case.)

"I didn't know he was going to say today he made a decision," Tillerson said. The nation's top diplomat then went on to add: "I knew he had, but I didn’t know he was going to say he had."

Got that?

Trump has a long history of undermining or contradicting what his underlings, including press secretaries and Cabinet officials, say in public, often within hours. That can make the administration appear chaotic and disorganized; Tillerson, in particular, has suffered from the public perception that, while he has worked hard to develop a personal relationship with Trump, he remains outside the inner circle when it comes to decision-making.

Even foreign leaders have trouble, at times, figuring out what the president and his team are doing or saying.

For Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, the answer to this dilemma Wednesday was to go to Trump himself. Tillerson said she asked Trump if he would share his decision with her.

"He said no,"  Tillerson said. "So, I think, as the president always indicated, he will let you know when he thinks it’s useful to let you know, and he doesn’t share his forward planning with people.”

Including, in some cases, Tillerson himself.