When asked about it at the White House, Trump simply said: “He’s here. Rex is here.” Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, echoed that remark. “Secretary Tillerson continues to lead the State Department and the entire Cabinet is focused on completing this incredibly successful first year of President Trump's administration,” she said. The State Department’s spokesperson, Heather Nauert, said that Tillerson “serves at the pleasure of the president,” and added that John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, called Margaret Peterlin, Tillerson’s chief of staff, to assure her that the report of Tillerson’s imminent exit was “not true.”
Reports about Tillerson's departure, which have circulated for months, emerged most recently last month, when NBC News reported that following Trump’s controversial remarks to the Boy Scouts of America, Tillerson had called the president a “moron” during a meeting that did not involve him. Tensions between the two men were reportedly high during this period, and Tillerson had seriously considered quitting, NBC reported, but was persuaded to stay by James Mattis, the defense secretary, and John Kelly. Vice President Mike Pence reportedly talked with Tillerson about not airing his policy disagreements publicly, NBC added. The Times’s report on Thursday said Kelly had formulated the plan to replace Tillerson with Pompeo.
Reports of Tillerson’s impending exit also circulated in August, when he declined to defend Trump after his controversial remarks about a white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. When asked about the president’s values, Tillerson told Chris Wallace, the Fox News host, “The president speaks for himself, Chris.”
If Tillerson’s time in Foggy Bottom is indeed coming to an end, his tenure will be remembered for both its brevity and its turbulence. The former Exxon CEO's lack of government experience became a major sticking point among critics of his nomination. His close ties to Russia, where Exxon has vast business interests, were cited as a possible conflict of interest as the Trump administration became embroiled by controversy over alleged contacts between his inner circle and Russian officials. Tillerson's reorganization of the State Department also left much of its staff despondent over the future of U.S. diplomacy. He pushed back vigorously against criticisms that he was hollowing out American diplomacy this week in remarks at a forum in Washington, D.C. But on matters of policy, Tillerson has stuck to long-standing U.S. approaches, even if he has sometimes chosen different words to advocate them—and even if at times he has seemed to contradict Trump.
Tillerson said the Obama-era policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea was over—even if Trump’s policy is virtually indistinguishable from his predecessor's—despite North Korea’s latest test of an intercontinental ballistic missile this week. Tillerson cited concerns with the Iran nuclear deal, but pushed for its repeated recertification by Trump, who was angered by this pressure. Trump called the agreement the “worst” deal in history and ultimately, despite Tillerson’s advice, sent the multination deal to Congress. Tillerson also endorsed the idea of collective defense at NATO, which the president dismissed as obsolete, and defended Qatar in its diplomatic dispute with its Arab neighbors (Trump called the nation the biggest supporter of terrorism in the Middle East).