Secretary of State Rex Tillerson waxed fawning over President Donald Trump during a short-notice news conference Wednesday, making him the latest high-ranking official to hail the chief after an alleged run-in with the boss.
“He loves his country. He puts Americans and America first. He’s smart,” Tillerson said in praise of the president in the wake of NBC News reports that he’d called Trump “a moron” and nearly resigned his post in frustration over the summer.
While the secretary said Trump hadn’t demanded a public mea culpa over the dustup, his statement raised a few eyebrows—and the question of whether he should now be counted as a member of the growing club of marquee names to face the cameras after rankling the notoriously touchy Trump.
A few different strains of self-flagellation by senior staff—or refusal to engage (publicly) in it—have emerged since the Manhattan real estate mogul claimed the Oval Office.
While the responses have varied, it's clear Trump has a thing for keeping even his top dogs on a tight leash—or a choke chain:
* Over the summer, Trump trashed Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from an investigation into Russian meddling in U.S. politics, and for days he told reporters that only time would tell if Sessions would soon be out of a job. (White House operatives maintained that Sessions did in fact have the president's confidence, and the former Alabama senator remains head of the Justice Department.)
* Trump, former star of the cutthroat Apprentice reality shows, at one point was similarly cagey about the fate of one of his closest aides, Steve Bannon. “We’ll see what happens with Mr. Bannon," the president said around the time the (then former) Breitbart publisher either quit or got axed, according to various news accounts.
* The commander in chief reportedly dragged Sean Spicer, who left the White House when Anthony Scaramucci became communications director, for his "weak" engagements with the press, and even griped about his fashion sense. (Scaramucci, in turn, lasted a mere 11 days in the job and has since moved on to a new and nebulous media project).
Even though Tillerson said he hadn't spoken to the president prior to holding his news conference, the Twitter ticker suggested the White House had its eyes and ears open to the secretary's every move.
“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,” Trump (or somebody) tweeted at 10:47 a.m.
Right after Tillerson’s talk, Trump—at the time en route to Nevada to meet with victims of the weekend’s shooting massacre in Las Vegas—crowed vindication: “The @NBCNews story has just been totally refuted by Sec. Tillerson and @VP Pence. It is #FakeNews. They should issue an apology to AMERICA!” the feed said.
Tillerson didn’t specifically deny having called the president “a moron” (or worse) during his brief appearance with reporters, instead saying he wasn't going to get into "petty nonsense."
A State Department spokeswoman specifically knocked down the name-calling allegation later in the day.
Trump himself, per a pool report, said outside a Las Vegas hospital he visited that he has "total confidence in Rex."
Former South Carolina Republican Representative Bob Inglis took note of the secretary of state drama on Twitter, sympathetically posting, “Feel so sorry for Rex Tillerson. Like others in this Admin. he embarrasses himself by serving this President.”
Why does Trump have such a taste for raking subordinates over the coals?
"Not a diagnosis from an office visit, but very clear in my view [that Trump] has a severe narcissistic personality disorder," veteran political psychologist Bart Rossi tells Newsweek.
"The major trait here typically is to blame others, and Trump exudes this trait. He likes to belittle everyone else so that he looks best, or at least better than everyone else," Rossi ruled, saying he's basing his guess on what's been "observable on the national stage" during Trump's long stretch in the public eye.
"He is consumed [with] himself."