'It violates the law': Tillerson vents about having to repeatedly push back

Rex Tillerson
Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was replaced in March by then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who is more in line with the president on a host of issues. | Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Nearly nine months after his unceremonious firing by tweet, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is breaking his silence on his time in the Trump administration, venting that he had to repeatedly tell President Donald Trump that what he wanted to do would violate the law.

The former ExxonMobil CEO appeared at a fundraiser in Houston on Thursday evening where he sat for a conversation with CBS reporter Bob Schieffer and outlined how Trump had a “starkly different” style from Tillerson, who said the two also did not share a “common value system.”

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Tillerson said his relationship with Trump took off quickly — the first time he met the future president was the day he asked Tillerson to serve as the nation’s top diplomat — and that impulsiveness marked the rest of his tenure in the White House.

“He acts on his instincts and some respects that looks like impulsiveness. But it’s not intent to act on impulse. I think he’s trying to act on his instincts,” said Tillerson, who claimed that Trump’s chaotic leadership style was a departure from what he was used to at ExxonMobil.

“It was challenging for me coming from the disciplined, highly process-oriented ExxonMobil Corporation to go to work for a man who is pretty undisciplined, doesn’t — doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t — 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 and you can try to convince me otherwise, but most of the time you’re not going to do that.”

The two continued to clash when Trump would test the limits of his executive power and would grow frustrated when Tillerson would inform him that he didn’t have unilateral authority to do something. Tillerson, who once reportedly referred to Trump as a “moron” behind his back, said his downfall may have been his directness with the president in such instances.

“When the president would say, ‘Here’s what I want to do, and here’s how I want to do it,’ and I’d have to say to him, ‘Well, Mr. President, I understand what you want to do but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law, it violates the treaty, you know,’” Tillerson explained.

“I didn’t know how to conduct my affairs with him any other way than in a very straightforward fashion. And I think he grew tired of me being the guy every day that told him, ‘You can’t do that, and let’s talk about what we can do.’”

When Trump would suggest policies that were barred by law, Tillerson said he would tell the president that he was willing to advocate for the president on Capitol Hill if he wanted Congress to change something, saying he told Trump “there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Tillerson was replaced in March by then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who is more in line with the president on a host of issues. Pompeo shepherded Trump’s historic meeting over the summer with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.