Did Rex go rogue? Tillerson pledges loyalty while Trump rips NBC story

Rex Tillerson went before the television cameras yesterday to engage in some high-profile damage control.

It was hardly the first time that President Trump has been publicly at odds with one of his Cabinet members.

The former Exxon Mobil chief praised Trump and took on stories he said had been "erroneously reported," but with carefully worded denials.

Hours earlier, NBC reported that "Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was on the verge of resigning this past summer amid mounting policy disputes and clashes with the White House, according to multiple senior administration officials who were aware of the situation at the time."

In July, says NBC, Tillerson openly disparaged Trump as a "moron," and when the president gave a strikingly political speech to the Boy Scouts, he considered not returning from a visit to his home in Texas. Vice President Pence "counseled" Tillerson "on ways to ease tensions with Trump," and other officials urged him to stay in the job at least until year’s end, the network says.

At 10:58 a.m., Tillerson told reporters that he had "never considered leaving this post" and Pence never tried to talk him into staying. He blamed the story on leakers, saying "there are some who try to sow dissension" in an effort to "undermine" Trump's agenda.

Asking during a brief Q&A with reporters whether he had described the president as a moron, Tillerson ducked. He said he would not deal with such "petty nonsense."

The lead co-author, former Wall Street Journal reporter Carol Lee, said afterward on NBC that "our reporting shows he absolutely intended to resign" and that "interestingly, he did not deny calling the president a moron." (State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert later said that Tillerson "does not use that type of language.")

Trump, for his part, tweeted that "NBC news is #FakeNews and more dishonest than even CNN. They are a disgrace to good reporting. No wonder their news ratings are way down!"

(CNN later said it had confirmed the "moron" comment.)

But it’s no secret that the president is at odds with his secretary of State. Tillerson went to China last week and told reporters the administration had several channels for asking North Korea "would you like to talk?" and "we’re not in a dark situation, a blackout."

The following day, the president appeared to undercut his chief diplomat, tweeting:  "I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man." He added: "Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!"

It looked like a public slap, although some analysts speculated that they might be engaged in a good cop/bad cop routine to keep Kim Jong Un off balance.

But the New York Times reported that Tillerson "has been deeply frustrated and has told associates that he tries to ignore the president’s Twitter blasts."

Trump, of course, repeatedly ripped Jeff Sessions on Twitter in what looked to many observers like an effort to push him into quitting. The president was steamed over the attorney general recusing himself from the Russia investigation. But Sessions rode out the storm and the two men appear to have patched things up.

Journalists vacuum up a lot more of these leaks in this administration, but there also seems to be no shortage of infighting. By holding a news conference, Rex Tillerson magnified the NBC story but also signaled his boss that he wants to keep his job, at least for now.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.