President Trump, not for the first time, publicly contradicted his chief diplomat on a major foreign policy issue Sunday, saying via Twitter that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was âwasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.â
Using his nickname for North Koreaâs leader, Kim Jong Un, and apparently warning again of a U.S. military response to its escalating nuclear threat, Trump advised, âSave your energy, Rex, weâll do what has to be done.â
The tweets came the day after Tillerson, on a visit to Beijing, told reporters the administration had direct lines of communication with North Korea and was probing for a response. âWe ask, âWould you like to talk?ââ he said. âWe can talk to them, we do talk to them.â
The latest display of dissension follows earlier presidential put-downs and efforts by Tillerson and other national security officials to smooth Trumpâs rough edges on issues as diverse as U.S. policy toward NATO, Mexico and the Persian Gulf.
All have sparked questions about Tillersonâs longevity in office, with repeated speculation that he is fed up, or that Trump wants him gone.
âHumiliating for Tillerson, but worse, renders him useless. Heâll resign, today or after a brief face-saving interval,â predicted former Obama administration ambassador and National Security Council official Dan Shapiro, one of many foreign policy experts who tweeted about Trumpâs Sunday comments, sent from his New Jersey golf club.
âPresident Trump spectacularly shot down SecState Tillerson after important Beijing talks. How long can this last?â asked Carl Bildt, former conservative prime minister of Sweden and current co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Neither the State Department nor the White House responded to queries on Trumpâs comments.
Tillersonâs aides were quick to explain on Saturday that the secretaryâs remarks, made during a brief visit to China to plan for Trumpâs trip there in November, did not imply that any substantive talks were underway with Pyongyang.
âThatâs not happening,â senior Tillerson adviser R.C. Hammond told reporters aboard the secretaryâs flight from Beijing. âThere is a means by which the countries can engage with each other,â Hammond said, adding, âNorth Korean officials show no indication that they are interested in or ready for talks on denuclearization.â
In Washington, a senior administration official said immediately after the secretaryâs comments, âI wouldnât read too much into that.â
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned Sunday that âif we donât ramp up the diplomatic sideÂ .â.â. itâs possible that we end up cornered.â
âI think thereâs more going on than meets the eye,â Corker said on NBCâs âMeet the Press.â While the Trump administration and the United Nations have rapidly increased sanctions against Pyongyang, he said, âI think Tillerson understands that every intelligence agency we have says thereâs no amount of economic pressure you can put on North Korea to get them to stop this program because they view this as their survival.Â .â.â. Weâre moving to a place where weâre going to end up with a binary choice soon.â
Shortly after Corkerâs appearance, Trump tweeted again. âBeing nice to Rocket Man hasnât worked in 25 years, why would it work now? Clinton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed. I wonât fail.â
Kim, who was preceded by his father and grandfather, has been in power since late 2011.
Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil chief executive with no previous diplomatic experience, has been under a broader cloud in office, with lawmakers and others criticizing the slow pace of diplomatic appointments, his acquiescence to massive budget cuts proposed by the White House, and the State Departmentâs lack of visibility on a number of issues.
Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan acknowledged at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last week that department morale was low.
âI think thereâs uncertainty,â he said, âand that causes â uncertainty leads people [to be] unsettled, and we need to address that,â he said.
On the world stage, whereÂ Tillerson has sought to reassureÂ allies that the United States under Trump is a reliable partner, many have concluded that his influence is limited.
With White House aides such as presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and others given a major role in foreign policy, the question of âwho is responsible for what segmentâ of national security remains an open one, said a senior official in the government of a close European ally, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk about sensitive diplomatic issues. Unpredictability âmay be a useful tool with adversaries,â he said, but with allies it creates âuncertainty and irritation.â
Tillerson defended Trumpâs early August threat to rain âfire and furyâ on North Korea as âimportantÂ .â.â. to avoid any miscalculation on their part.â But he quickly followed with reassurance that Trump was âjust reaffirmingÂ .â.â. that the United States has the capability to fully defend itself from any attack, and our allies, and we will do so. So the American people should sleep well at night.â
Jim Mattis, the retired Marine general who is Trumpâs secretary of defense, has often joined ÂTillerson in advocating for Âdiplomacy over military saber-rattling. But Mattis, a Trump favorite among the retired and active-duty military advisers around the president, has been spared the belittling comments and tweets that Tillerson has endured along with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others.
Early in the administration, Tillerson and Mattis, as well as Vice President Pence, traveled to NATO headquarters to express unwavering U.S. support for the alliance that Trump, during his campaign, had called âobsolete.â
In late February, as Tillerson was visiting Mexico, Trump told a business forum in Washington that he would launch a âmilitary operationâ at the U.S.-Mexico border to remove âgang lordsÂ .â.â. drug lordsâ and other âbad dudes out of this country at a rate that nobodyâs ever seen before.â
At a news conference the same day with his Mexican counterpart, Tillerson chose to take the high road. âIn a relationship filled with vibrant colors,â he said, âtwo strong sovereign countries will have their differences.â
Perhaps the sharpest dissonance occurred in June, when Tillerson publicly called on a ÂSaudi Arabia-led bloc of Arab nations to immediately cease their blockade of neighboring Qatar, which they had accused of terrorism financing, and he urged âcalm and thoughtful dialogue.â Barely an hour later, Trump called the blockade âhard but necessaryâ and said he agreed with the Saudi accusations.
Members of his staff have sometimes risen to Tillersonâs defense. When a White House aide this summer publicly chastised the secretary for meddling in âmilitary mattersâ on North Korea for his âsleep wellâ comment, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert bristled. âHeâs a Cabinet secretary,â she said. âHeâs fourth in line to the presidency. He carries a big stick.â
Tillerson himself has largely refused to talk about any frustration he may feel toward Trump. âThere is no gap between the president and myself or the State Department on policy,â he told Congress in late June. âThere are differences in terms of how the president chooses to articulate elements of that policy.â
More recently, following Augustâs neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Tillerson was asked on âFox News Sundayâ about the values of a president who said âmany sidesâ were to blame.
âThe president speaks for himself,â Tillerson replied.
David Nakamura and Carol Morello contributed to this report.