WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have tried to smooth over tensions in their relationship, after the President proposed an "IQ tests" face-off with his top diplomat, who had privately called Mr Trump a "moron" and disparaged his grasp of foreign policy.
In an interview with Forbes magazine published on Tuesday, Mr Trump fired a shot at Mr Tillerson over the "moron" revelation, which was first reported by NBC News and confirmed by several other news organisations.
"I think it's fake news," Mr Trump said, "but if he did (say) that, I guess we'll have to compare IQ tests.
"And I can tell you who is going to win".
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later insisted Mr Trump's comment was "a joke and nothing more than that".
"The President certainly never implied that the Secretary of State was not incredibly intelligent," Ms Sanders said in a news briefing.
She added that Mr Trump has "100 per cent confidence" in Mr Tillerson, and admonished reporters for taking the President's comment so seriously. "Maybe you guys should get a sense of humour and try it sometime," she quipped.
THE IQ TEST
I think it's fake news. But if he did (say) that, I guess we'll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP, in a interview with Forbes, when asked about Mr Rex Tillerson allegedly calling him a moron.
Regardless of whether Mr Trump was trying to make a joke, his "IQ tests" challenge is the latest evidence of what White House officials have described as a breach of trust between the President and the Secretary of State.
Although Mr Trump has said publicly that he has confidence in Mr Tillerson, as he did on Tuesday, he has long been brooding about the latter's job performance behind the scenes, according to administration officials and outside advisers.
Mr Trump has been frustrated by what he sees as Mr Tillerson's traditionalist world view - on a host of issues ranging from Iran to North Korea - in contrast to the President's desire to redefine America's role around the globe.
Among those helping to soothe tensions between the two men are White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defence Secretary James Mattis, who both have privately stressed the imperative of stability atop the State Department at a critical moment for the nation.
Mr Trump on Tuesday met Mr Tillerson and Mr Mattis for lunch in the President's private dining room at the White House. Ms Sanders characterised it as "a great visit".
Shortly before the lunch, a reporter asked Mr Trump whether he had undercut Mr Tillerson with his comments to Forbes.
"No, I didn't undercut anybody. I don't believe in undercutting people," Mr Trump said during a brief media appearance in the Oval Office as he sat beside former secretary of state Henry Kissinger during a meeting to discuss foreign affairs.
When asked if he had confidence in Mr Tillerson as his Secretary of State, the President replied: "Yes."
Last Saturday, reporters also asked Mr Trump about his relationship with Mr Tillerson.
He replied: "We have a very good relationship. We disagree on a couple of things. Sometimes I'd like him to be a little bit tougher. But other than that, we have a very good relationship."
Mr Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil chief executive, is set to play a major role in preparing Mr Trump's monster trip to Asia next month that will take him to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. Still, it remains far from clear how long a Secretary of State who has lost the ear of the President can remain in the post.
WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE