Trump's 'Band of Brothers' stirs interest

Defense experts and allies are emphasizing the role of Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonPompeo jokes he'll be secretary of State until Trump 'tweets me out of office' Heather Nauert withdraws her name from consideration for UN ambassador job Trump administration’s top European diplomat to resign in February MORE amid mounting speculation about his relationship with President Trump, pointing to a camaraderie between Tillerson, Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisMattis returning to Stanford months after Pentagon resignation US-backed fighters capture ISIS militants suspected of killing American troops Nielsen warns US 'not prepared' for foreign cyberattacks MORE and White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE.

Tillerson took the unusual step this week of holding a press conference to address a report on tensions between himself and Trump. Kelly, who was set to visit Las Vegas with the president, abruptly backed out to handle fallout over the story, reportedly summoning Tillerson and Mattis to the White House to discuss a plan forward.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump keeps tight grip on GOP Brexit and exit: A transatlantic comparison Sasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger MORE (R-Tenn.) later accused unnamed Trump administration officials of not supporting Tillerson in the wake of the bombshell story, telling reporters on Capitol Hill that the secretary of State, along with Mattis and Kelly, "help separate our country from chaos."

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“I watch, and I see what’s happening, and I deal with people throughout the administration, and [Tillerson], from my perspective, he is in an incredibly frustrating place," Corker said. "He ends up not being supported in a way that I would hope a secretary of State would be supported."

Allies of the administration argue that officials are merely hashing out solutions and that it's unsurprising some may throw some elbows in meetings with Trump. 

"They’re getting together and they’re grappling with the problems," James Carafano, a member of the Trump transition team who heads the national security team at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told The Hill. 

“I’m not so sure it’s the discord that some people say. Rather than people being passive aggressive, if there’s a disagreement, just get the disagreement out there, say what you’ve got to say and argue it out. I think a lot of that is the spirit in which — without knowing a specific incident — the spirit of which a lot of this goes on," he said.

Tillerson, the longtime former executive of ExxonMobil, has developed a working relationship with Mattis and Kelly, both retired Marine Corps generals, that allies see as a binding force within Trump's Cabinet. 

“I do get a sense of — and I’ve had this from the transition team — that there is a bit of a ‘Band of Brothers’ thing with Kelly and Mattis and Tillerson, a degree of camaraderie. They have to work together to get things done and they do that,” Carafano said.

That reported closeness was on display Wednesday, when Kelly scrapped plans to travel with Trump to Las Vegas in the aftermath of the mass shooting there in order to contain the president's "fury" over reports of tensions between himself and Tillerson, as NBC News reported.

NBC reported that Vice President Pence talked Tillerson out of resigning over the summer, and that Tillerson grew so frustrated with Trump’s management style he called him a “moron" at a meeting of national security officials in July. The outlet later reported that its initial story Wednesday was the first time that Trump had heard about the disparaging comments.

Tillerson flatly denied during his press conference Wednesday that he had ever considered resigning, while a State Department spokeswoman later denied that he had used disparaging language to describe the president. Trump, meanwhile, expressed "total" confidence in Tillerson.

“Have you ever seen two New Yorkers on a street corner arguing? And they look like they’re just getting ready to pull out a baseball bat and kill each other and then they give each other a hug and say, ‘See you next week’? I just get a sense that that’s kind of how this president tends to operate,” Carafano told The Hill. 

“Everything he’s invested in trying to hammer out the policies with the team, none of that strikes me as a guy that’s leaving,” Carafano added of Tillerson. “For a guy that’s on his way out the door, he sure seems to have a lot of access to the president and a lot on his to-do list.”

The president has repeatedly undermined the top diplomat and publicly contradicted his statements on Qatar, North Korea, Iran, Russia and the Paris Climate Accord.

Trump most recently said on Twitter last weekend that Tillerson was “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with North Korea on its nuclear and missile programs.

Tillerson was in China at the time to attempt to persuade the country’s leaders to tighten economic sanctions on North Korea, and told reporters “this is going to be a process of engagement.”

Trump took a similar tone in tweets Saturday, saying, "Presidents and their administrations have been talking to North Korea for 25 years, agreements made and massive amounts of money paid hasn't worked, agreements violated before the ink was dry, makings fools of U.S. negotiators. Sorry, but only one thing will work!"

Mattis, for his part, has publicly rebuffed critics who say he and other national security leaders should step down when Trump makes divisive remarks, citing service to the country.

“You know, when a president of the United States asks you to do something, I come — I don't think it's an old-fashioned school at all, I don't think it's old-fashioned or anything,” Mattis told reporters in early September.

A source familiar with the dynamics within the administration has said Mattis is “holding the line until a semblance of normalcy is restored during the tumultuous first year of this administration.”

And on the relationship with Tillerson, one administration official told CNN this week that Mattis has tried to "mentor" the former Exxon chief, treating him "with the respect of a peer, with talent, but maybe a guy without the political skills."

Though he couldn’t say whether Mattis and Kelly directly convinced Tillerson to stay in reportedly heated moments between the president and the former oil executive, Carafano said their presence has some influence.

“They’ve all got issues and they’re all kind of learning on the job, but I think all of them are using the skill set as 'how do strong leaders come together to get a job done,'" he said.