Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told CNN Monday that the suggestion President Donald Trump was unhappy with his performance was "obsolete," amid new reporting that Trump has soured on his Cabinet secretary.
Axios had detailed what it characterized as Trump's displeasure with the commerce secretary's progress in trade negotiations with China and reported that Ross fell asleep during meetings.
A report said Trump was unhappy with Ross because of Ross' work on China and that he falls asleep in meetings
The White House said Trump "loves" Ross
"That's an obsolete story. Look at the press release from the White House. Look at the President's press release," Ross told CNN in a brief phone interview.
"I thank you for your inquiry," Ross said, before hanging up the phone.
In response to a report from Axios that Trump had told someone, "Wilbur has lost his step," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Monday that Trump "loves" Ross.
"He has 100% confidence in Secretary Ross," Sanders said. "He loves Wilbur, thinks he is doing a great job and has been a strong advocate for this administration."
A White House official said Trump was unhappy with Ross last summer and that it stemmed primarily from the fact that the trade moves he had promised to make quickly were taking time and were tied up with legal or regulatory questions.
"He's in a good place with the President," the official told CNN.
A Hill source told CNN there is talk of Ross having "fallen out of favor with the White House."
"That could explain why embarrassing stories such as this are now appearing," the source said, referencing the Axios report.
The Commerce Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and an automatic reply by email said only a very limited number of public affairs staff would be working during the government shutdown.
While Ross has been less in the public eye recently than he had in the beginning of Trump's tenure, a senior administration official offered that major issues for Ross, like trade, "aren't dominant right now" compared to other key issues of the day like tax reform, immigration, foreign policy and the recent government shutdown.
"But that doesn't mean he's not doing his job," the official said.
As with most personnel intrigue stories that come out of this White House, this official also cautioned that it is important to distinguish between what Trump himself is really thinking and what his staff might be trying to circulate and plant with the press.
But the potential distance from his commerce secretary may not mean Trump intends to oust Ross. A source close to the White House who speaks regularly with Trump said there was no indication yet that Ross was about to lose his job.
"I don't think he's on (the) chopping block yet," the source said.
The Axios report said Trump had unloaded on Ross during meetings about six months into his presidency and told Ross he didn't trust him to negotiate.
A source recounted to Axios that Trump told Ross: "Your understanding of trade is terrible. Your deals are no good. No good."