Update: After all that, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert on Wednesday afternoon offered the denial that Tillerson wouldn't. "The secretary does not use that type of language," she said. "The secretary did not use that type of language to speak about the president of the United States." Asked whether she was saying Tillerson never called Trump a "moron," Nauert said, "He did not say that, yeah."
NBC is not backing off its report, and CNN has now also confirmed Tillerson called Trump a "moron."
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just delivered an unscheduled statement to reporters about “some news reports this morning that I want to address.”
But while Tillerson went on to dispute one major contention in those “reports” — that he considered resigning — he directly and pregnantly declined to dispute another one — that he called his boss, President Trump, a “moron.”
The juxtaposition of those two things was striking, and it leads to basically one logical conclusion: He can't deny it . . . because he said it.
The first claim was dispatched quickly. “The vice president has never had to persuade me to remain as secretary of state,” Tillerson said, referring to an NBC News report Wednesday morning, “because I have never considered leaving this post.”
Fair enough. That's a full-fledged denial addressing a specific claim. But in his statement, Tillerson made no specific mention of the story's other contention and its headline, which stated that he called Trump a “moron” in a moment of particular exasperation in July.
Tillerson was first asked whether he wanted to dispute anything else in the story, and he said, “I think it’s the most important element in the article,” and he said he wanted “to reaffirm my commitment to this role that President Trump's asked me to serve.” Then he was asked directly about the “moron” comment, and he completely punted.
“I’m not going to deal with petty stuff like that,” Tillerson said. “This is what I don’t understand about Washington. I’m not from this place. But the places I come from, we don’t deal with that kind of petty nonsense.”
What's unclear from the statement is why Tillerson thinks one part of the report is “petty nonsense” that isn't worth addressing and the other needs a firm denial. He can't deal with the perception that he considered resigning and must deny that, but he doesn't feel the need to dignify another claim about a word he used to describe his boss? If both claims are specious nonsense, why not just deny them both? Why is one worth his time, but the other is not?
Maybe because he actually said it, and plenty of people heard it. NBC reported that he made the remark with others around him after a meeting, and it was confirmed by three separate sources:
Just days earlier, Tillerson had openly disparaged the president, referring to him as a “moron,” after a July 20 meeting at the Pentagon with members of Trump’s national security team and Cabinet officials, according to three officials familiar with the incident.
MSNBC's Stephanie Ruhle has also reporting that another source told her Tillerson used the word — including a vulgar modifier in front of it, and CNN is also reporting he used the word “moron.”
It's also worth noting here that Tillerson spokesman R.C. Hammond had reportedly already denied both the resignation claim and the “moron” claim, according to NBC. So why could a spokesman say it but not Tillerson?
And finally, Tillerson did somewhat address the “moron” claim in his prepared remarks, at one point saying of Trump: “He's smart.” So again, why nod to that claim but not address it directly?
This isn't going away, and it's going to color reporting on Tillerson and Trump's relationship for the remainder of Tillerson's time as secretary of state — until he denies it or actually does resign. He might not realize that or have a good answer for it, but it's true.