WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump denounced his first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, as “dumb as a rock” and “lazy as hell” Friday after Tillerson said the president had regularly pushed him to take actions that were illegal.
Trump, who fired Tillerson with a Twitter post in March, lashed back at him the same way after the former secretary gave a talk in Houston and said Trump was undisciplined, did not like to read and did not respect the limits of his office.
“Mike Pompeo is doing a great job, I am very proud of him,” Trump wrote Friday afternoon, referring to the current secretary. “His predecessor, Rex Tillerson, didn’t have the mental capacity needed. He was dumb as a rock and I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough. He was lazy as hell. Now it is a whole new ballgame, great spirit at State!”
The caustic war of words came after a week in which Washington extolled civility as it bade farewell to former President George H.W. Bush and his “kinder and gentler” brand of leadership. With Bush now buried, Trump dispensed with any remnants of the public restraint he had shown during the state funeral to denounce the man he once installed as the head of his Cabinet and fourth in line to the presidency.
The acrid exchange demonstrated several truths about Trump’s presidency: He often hires for top positions people he does not know well or, as with Tillerson, had not even previously met, grows disenchanted with them or alienates them and casts them aside. Those who go quietly are then generally left alone. Those who go public with their observations about the president’s behavior are visited with unrelenting thunderbolts from on high.
As a result, some of the most damning portrayals of the president come from people once in his circle. Among his harshest public critics are the ghostwriter on his iconic book, “The Art of the Deal”; the former chief executive of his casino; the television chieftain who helped develop his reality show; a former contestant he put on the White House staff; and now his first secretary of state.
Perhaps more threatening to him is his own former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, who has turned on him and implicated him in a hush money scheme to squelch stories of sexual impropriety before the 2016 election and asserted that Trump was seeking to build a tower in Moscow even as he clinched the presidential nomination that year.
Trump has fiercely assailed Cohen for his disloyalty, effectively warning others not to follow his example.
Even as he opened fire at Tillerson, Cohen and others he believes betrayed him, Trump has been busy orchestrating yet another staff shake-up that may leave more raw feelings in its wake.
On Friday, the president named a replacement for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom he fired last month after a withering series of attacks, and he was, once again, seemingly on the edge of forcing out his White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, with whom he is barely on speaking terms.
The dust-up with Tillerson was remarkable even in Trump’s world of belligerent confrontations. Just a day earlier, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who rubbed Bush’s feet on his deathbed, cried as he eulogized his friend and former president at a Houston church.
Elsewhere in the same city just hours later, Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, took the stage for a benefit for the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at which he presented a blistering account of the president he served.
“It was challenging for me coming from the disciplined, highly process-oriented Exxon Mobil Corporation to go to work for a man who is pretty undisciplined, doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just kind of says, ‘Look, this is what I believe,'” Tillerson said in a discussion with Bob Schieffer of CBS News.
Trump, he added, kept pressing for actions beyond his authority. “So often, the president would say here’s what I want to do and here’s how I want to do it and I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way,'” Tillerson said. “It violates the law.”
Often, he said, Trump would get frustrated. “I’d say, ‘Here’s what we can do. We can go back to Congress and get this law changed. And if that’s what you want to do, there’s nothing wrong with that,'” Tillerson said. “I told him, ‘I’m ready to go up there and fight the fight, if that’s what you want to do.'”
He added that the president’s favorite method of communication was a troubling development for democracy. “I will be honest with you, it troubles me that the American people seem to want to know so little about issues, that they are satisfied with 128 characters,” Tillerson said.
When Trump appointed Tillerson, he was taken with the oil executive’s straight-from-central-casting looks and demeanor and boasted about being able to recruit the head of the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company. He gushed that Tillerson was “a world-class player and deal-maker.”
But Tillerson seemed miscast in the role. While he had traveled the world negotiating business deals, he was the first secretary of state in U.S. history without experience in government, politics or the military, working for the United States’ first president also without such a background.
With a diffident style, Tillerson won few friends in Congress, in the news media, on embassy row or, most importantly, in the White House. But some foreign officials and Republican lawmakers saw him as the grown-up in the room who might be able to check a volatile president eager to rip up international agreements.
Tillerson tried, but he and Trump were clearly not in sync. At one point, the president undercut the secretary by publicly telling him that he was “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with North Korea (months before the president would try to do so himself).
Tillerson grew frustrated with what he saw as a president out of his depth. At one point during a meeting with other senior administration officials, he grew exasperated and referred to Trump as a “moron” (or an expletive-deleted moron, depending on the account). When his comment was later reported publicly, Trump challenged him to an IQ contest. “And I can tell you who is going to win,” the president insisted.
After he was fired in March, Tillerson went underground and kept to himself. He did give one previously scheduled speech at the Virginia Military Institute, where he issued what seemed like an implicit rebuke of Trump, although he did not name him at the time.
“If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom,” Tillerson said then.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.