Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised eyebrows Sunday with his curt reply that President Trump “speaks for himself,” when asked about his boss’s values.
But Tillerson is just the latest Cabinet member or top adviser appearing to put distance between himself and the commander-in-chief – complicating the president’s task as he tries to unify both his own team and Republicans in Congress behind his agenda.
The response from Tillerson reflects how the president’s handling of the violence in Charlottesville continues to reverberate weeks later.
America’s top diplomat was asked on “Fox News Sunday” whether he has a tougher time pushing American values when some foreign leaders question Trump’s values. When he said nobody doubts the American people’s values, host Chris Wallace pointedly asked about the president’s.
“The president speaks for himself, Chris,” Tillerson said.
Asked whether he was “separating himself” from the president’s comments, he answered, “I have spoken.” Tillerson pointed to post-Charlottesville comments he made earlier this month at the State Department in which he said, “I want Americans to know we stand in solidarity against this racist hatred.”
Tillerson is not alone.
Just last week, Trump’s top economic adviser Gary Cohn said he has faced pressure to leave the administration and went so far as to draft a resignation letter, a source with knowledge of the situation told Fox News. Cohn subsequently met with the president and decided to stay — but sounded off in an interview with the Financial Times.
“As a Jewish American, I will not allow neo-Nazis ranting ‘Jews will no replace us’ to cause this Jew to leave his job,” Cohn told the newspaper, adding that the Trump administration “can and must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning these groups and do everything we can to heal the deep divisions that exist in our communities.”
Trump came under fire for blaming “both sides” for the violence in Charlottesville, Va., where a counter-protester was killed during a white supremacist rally. The president also specifically condemned neo-Nazis and has since argued that the media have ignored that rebuke.
“Did they report that I said that racism is evil?” Trump asked of the media, during a rally last week in Phoenix, Ariz. The crowd yelled, “No!”
“You know why?” Trump asked. “Because they are very dishonest people.”
Meanwhile, another Cabinet member’s comments about tolerance surged across social media over the weekend — when a video clip surfaced of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis speaking to a group of U.S. troops.
“Our country right now, it’s got problems we don’t have in the military,” Mattis said in the clip. “You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it.”
It is unclear whether Mattis was referring to Trump in any way, or simply referring to the country as a whole. But some Trump critics have drawn parallels between the comments and Tillerson’s.
Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia under then-President Barack Obama, tweeted of the Tillerson comments: “Wow. Add this to Mattis tape a few days ago & Cohn resignation letter you get the feeling that few in Trump admin admire their boss.”
Others have closed ranks behind the president. Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin defended himself and Trump after coming under pressure earlier this month from members of his graduating class at Yale University to resign.
“While I find it hard to believe I should have to defend myself on this, or the president, I feel compelled to let you know that the president in no way, shape or form, believes that neo-Nazi and other hate groups who endorse violence are equivalent to groups that demonstrate in peaceful and lawful ways,” Mnuchin responded on Aug. 19.
Karl Rove, former senior adviser to President George W. Bush and now a Fox News contributor, said he doesn’t necessarily think Cabinet officials are trying to put distance between themselves and Trump.
Rather, he suggested those officials speaking out were in the tough position of being asked to defend comments equating neo-Nazis to protesters — and would not oblige.
“The president does speak for himself. You can’t ask these people to defend the indefensible,” Rove said.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao also has been placed in an awkward position—in the middle of a feud between the president and her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
“I stand by my man – both of them,” Chao told reporters last week, when asked by reporters about the ongoing scuffle between Trump and McConnell.
The feud between McConnell and Trump began when McConnell criticized the president for having “excessive expectations” about the legislative process, after Congress failed to deliver the votes on a plan to repeal and replace ObamaCare ahead of their August recess. Trump repeatedly said he was “very disappointed in Mitch,” and reportedly had a “profane shouting match” over the phone on Aug. 9.
Both the White House and McConnell have attempted to portray unity between the two.
The president has not publicly commented on the remarks made by Tillerson, Cohn or Mattis. The president was scheduled to have lunch with Tillerson on Monday.
Brooke Singman is a Politics Reporter for Fox News. Follow her on Twitter at @brookefoxnews.