Trump contradicts Tillerson on North Korea, the latest in a series of put-downs
Using his nickname for North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, and apparently warning again of a U.S. military response to its escalating nuclear threat, Trump advised, “Save your energy, Rex, we’ll do what has to be done.”
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. “We ask, ‘Would you like to talk?’” he said. “We can talk to them, we do talk to them.”
The latest display of dissension follows earlier presidential put-downs and efforts by Tillerson and other national security officials to smooth Trump’s rough edges on issues as diverse as U.S. policy toward NATO, Mexico and the Persian Gulf.
All have sparked questions about Tillerson’s longevity in office, with repeated speculation that he is fed up, or that Trump wants him gone.
“Humiliating for Tillerson, but worse, renders him useless. He’ll resign, today or after a brief face-saving interval,” predicted former Obama administration ambassador and National Security Council official Dan Shapiro, one of many foreign policy experts who tweeted about Trump’s Sunday comments, sent from his New Jersey golf club.
“President Trump spectacularly shot down SecState Tillerson after important Beijing talks. How long can this last?” 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 Trump’s comments.
Tillerson’s aides were quick to explain on Saturday that the secretary’s remarks, made during a brief visit to China to plan for Trump’s trip there in November, did not imply that any substantive talks were underway with Pyongyang.
“That’s not happening,” senior Tillerson adviser R.C. Hammond told reporters aboard the secretary’s flight from Beijing. “There is a means by which the countries can engage with each other,” Hammond said, adding, “North Korean officials show no indication that they are interested in or ready for talks on denuclearization.”
In Washington, a senior administration official said immediately after the secretary’s comments, “I wouldn’t read too much into that.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned Sunday that “if we don’t ramp up the diplomatic side . . . it’s possible that we end up cornered.”
“I think there’s more going on than meets the eye,” Corker said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” While the Trump administration and the United Nations have rapidly increased sanctions against Pyongyang, he said, “I think Tillerson understands that every intelligence agency we have says there’s 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. . . . We’re moving to a place where we’re going to end up with a binary choice soon.”
Shortly after Corker’s appearance, Trump tweeted again. “Being nice to Rocket Man hasn’t worked in 25 years, why would it work now? Clinton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed. I won’t fail.”
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 Department’s lack of visibility on a number of issues.