WASHINGTON • US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he was offended that anyone would suggest he was hollowing out the State Department, but he suggested that the department's budget should be cut by about a third.
Mr Tillerson also delivered an unusually tough rebuke to Russia, pledged enduring fealty to the security of Europe, needled President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and asked Britain and the European Union to settle their differences over "Brexit" soon.
The remarks came at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington just as Mr Tillerson was preparing to leave on a four-country swing through Europe next week.
Mr Tillerson's tenure as the nation's chief diplomat has been widely criticised in the news media and on Capitol Hill, with his own top diplomats fleeing the department with little precedent.
The criticism has clearly stung. In previous interviews, Mr Tillerson said that he was bewildered by reports of plunging morale, saying everyone he saw in the department's hallways appeared cheerful.
On Tuesday, he went a step further. "When I read these stories that there's this hollowing out, I take offence to that," he said.
Mr Tillerson denied that there was any large wave of departures, claiming that the number of foreign service officers in the department has remained largely unchanged.
He has made no secret of his intention to cut his department's staffing levels by 8 per cent by next year and its spending by about a third.
And the numbers he and his aides have been using to dispute claims of high-level departures come from Sept 30, the day before many diplomats left.
"While the confirmation process has been excruciatingly slow for many of our nominees, I have been so proud of the acting assistant secretaries and people who've stepped into acting roles," Mr Tillerson said on Tuesday, adding: "I'm offended on their behalf when people say somehow we don't have a State Department that functions."
And while expressing pride about the work his acting assistant secretaries are doing, he has ignored much of that, refusing to sit with many of his acting assistant secretaries for the routine briefings they have requested to provide him, officials said.
After his security chief insisted on having five minutes with him to relate time-sensitive classified information, Mr Tillerson fired him.