WASHINGTON (AP) – President Donald Trump challenged Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to “compare IQ tests,” delivering a sharp-edged ribbing that threw a bright spotlight on his seemingly shaky relationship with his top diplomat. The White House insisted the president was only joking.
Trump issued the challenge in an interview with Forbes magazine, when asked about reports that Tillerson called him a “moron” after a classified briefing this summer. The president responded that if the claim was true, the two should duke it out in a battle of brainpower.
“And I can tell you who is going to win,” Trump said.
The White House and the State Department suggested Tuesday that the president was simply trying to make light of what they describe as inaccurate reports of tension. But coming amid increasingly public signs of strain between the president and Tillerson, the remark landed with a distinct hint of malice.
Trump’s comments have threatened to undermine Tillerson’s diplomatic initiatives and sow confusion among allies and foes over whether he speaks for the U.S. and has the support of the White House. That uncertainty could impact a number of foreign policy crises, including the nuclear threat posed by North Korea and the imminent decision to be made as to whether to continue the Iran nuclear pact.
Trump declared Tuesday that he had confidence in Tillerson just hours after the publication of the interview – and before a private luncheon with Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.