Evasion, thy name is Rex. On Wednesday morning, in the immediate wake of an explosive article by NBC News claiming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had considered resigning during the summer and had to be talked down by Vice President Mike Pence, the 65-year-old former ExxonMobil CEO held an unscheduled press conference to deny the story. And yet, there was one aspect of the report he wasn't willing to directly confront: Tillerson wouldn't say whether he called Trump a "moron," and that refusal to offer a specific denial has sent social media into a bit of a tizzy.
Tillerson did offer some specific, staunch denials during the presser, specifically relating to the report's claim that he'd considered resigning following Trump's highly politicized, rambling, bizarre address to the Boy Scouts of America. Tillerson led the Boy Scouts from 2010 to 2012, parallel to his CEO role at ExxonMobil, and himself rose to the rank of Eagle Scout in 1965, the highest rank in the organization.
Tillerson flat-out denied that he'd ever considered leaving his current role at the State Department, calling NBC's story "misreported" and maintaining he'll stay in the job as long as President Donald Trump wants him. But that wasn't the only specific claim in NBC's story that people were curious about.
On the topic of whether he called Trump a "moron" — which the assembled reporters were obviously eager to get an answer on — Tillerson was decidedly less definitive, refusing to address what he called a "petty" part of the story.
I'm not going to deal with petty stuff like that. I mean, this is what I don't understand about Washington. Again, I'm not from this place, but the places I come from, we don't deal with that kind of petty nonsense. And it is intended to do nothing but divide people. And I'm just not going to be part of this effort to divide this administration.
According to NBC News' report, Tillerson made the insulting remark about Trump's lack of intellect following a July 20 meeting at the Pentagon with members of the Trump administration's national security team, according to three officials considered "familiar with the incident."
Additionally, Stephanie Ruhle, one of the report's three authors, has since added that her source said Tillerson didn't just call Trump a moron, but a "f***ing moron." In other words, adding in a little obscene flourish, presumably complete with Texas drawl.
Despite Tillerson noticeably refusing to deny that he made the offending quip about the commander-in-chief, he did attempt to smooth it over, referring to Trump in his press conference as "smart" and someone who "loves his country."
However, he framed these qualities as things he didn't know prior to taking a job in the administration, which is a bit of a double-edged sword ― so, you didn't know he was smart before? You didn't know he loved his country? Under normal conditions, that would likely be taken as a mark against a president or one of his cabinet secretaries, not a statement of pride and respect.
Ultimately, however, the most important aspect of Tillerson's sudden press conference is that he's not leaving the federal government, and moreover, has seemingly boxed himself into staying on at the State Department until the president takes action to remove him.
Of course, that could change if he feels incredibly negatively towards the job ― and for the record, NBC News is standing by its reporting that Tillerson wanted to resign back in July ― but in the near term, at least, it sounds like he's committed to sticking it out.
If Tillerson were to ever leave the State Department, that would be just one more cabinet position that would need to be filled. After John Kelly departed from the top of the Department of Homeland Security to become White House Chief of Staff, Trump still hasn't appointed a replacement, leaving one of the biggest agencies in the U.S. government without a permanent leader. Trump is also yet to announce a replacement for Tom Price, who resigned as Secretary of Health and Human Services in scandal last week.