The relationship between White House chief of staff John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has soured in recent months, leaving the former Exxon CEO without a single top ally in the White House as talk has ramped up of him being replaced at the State Department.
Kelly, once Tillerson’s fiercest defender in the West Wing, has stopped defending him privately, leaving him more isolated from the West Wing than ever before, according to a top White House official.
Tensions have been high between President Donald Trump and Tillerson for months now, and they were exacerbated after it was publicly reported that Tillerson privately referred to the President as a moron over the summer.
Though Trump knew about the “moron” remark before it was first reported in October, he was enraged after it became public. Their relationship never recovered, and many inside the White House saw their differences as irreconcilable. Trump only offered a tepid response when asked Thursday about rumors of Tillerson’s departure, saying, “He’s here. Rex is here.”
Kelly now agrees with the President that it’s time for Tillerson to go, sources familiar with the relationship told CNN. He first became fed up with him over the moron remark because Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, saw the comment as insubordination. As one official described it, he has grown weary of trying to defend the indefensible.
The New York Times reported Thursday morning that the plan to replace Tillerson has been developed by Kelly and is likely to be triggered late this year or early next year.
Kelly told the State Department later in the day that rumors Tillerson would be fired were untrue.
“Chief of staff Kelly called our department this morning and said the rumors are not true,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Thursday. “He remains the secretary of state. As long as he is serving at the pleasure of the President he will continue to do that job.”
Asked Friday about reports of the White House orchestrating his departure, Tillerson told CNN’s Michelle Kosinski: “It’s laughable.”
But a top Trump administration official said it appears a change is coming for Tillerson, despite what Kelly told the State Department Thursday.