'The President Speaks for Himself'

When U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked about the president’s values, he seemed to imply they are distinct from American values.

Rex Tillerson looks down
Yuri Gripas / Reuters

In a simple six-word response to a question posted by a cable news anchor, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to suggest something stunning—even by Trump administration standards.

Tillerson was on Fox News Sunday where he was asked by Chris Wallace, the show’s host, about a UN panel’s criticism of President Trump’s values and his response to the violence in Charlottesville. His response: “The president speaks for himself, Chris.”

The remarks are striking, not only because they come from Tillerson, who occupies what traditionally has been the highest-ranking Cabinet position, but also because the secretary of state appears to suggest the president’s values may not always be in sync with America’s values. The exchange is worth reading:

WALLACE: Does that make it harder for you to push American values around the world when some foreign leaders question president's values?

TILLERSON: Chris, we express America’s values from the State Department. We represent the American people. We represent America’s values, our commitment to freedom, our commitment to equal treatment to people the world over. And that message has never changed.

WALLACE: And when the president gets into the kind of controversy he does and the U.N. committee response the way it does, it seems to say they begin to doubt are—whether we’re living those values.

TILLERSON: I don’t believe anyone doubts the American people’s values or the commitment of the American government or the government’s agencies to advancing those values and defending those values.

WALLACE: And the president’s values?

TILLERSON: The president speaks for himself, Chris.

WALLACE: Are you separating yourself from that, sir?

TILLERSON: I’ve spoken—I’ve made my own comments as to our values as well in a speech I gave to the State Department this past week.

(You can watch the exchange here or read the full transcript.)

Trump’s responses to Charlottesville are, by now, well-known. He began with condemnation of “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides” after the August 12 white-nationalist rally. The White House issued a statement a day later, following outrage, clarifying that the president’s criticism included “white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazis, and all extremist groups.” On August 14, Trump called racism “evil,” but if that public statement was meant to quell the criticism, Trump emerged on August 15 to double-down on his initial comments, saying there were “some very fine people” among the white nationalists who were protesting the removal of a status of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville.

Administration officials have publicly and privately expressed discomfort over Trump’s response to the events, even as they have stayed in their jobs. Indeed, soon after the Charlottesville rally, Tillerson said: “There is just simply no place for that in our public discourse.” Although past secretaries of state have clashed with Cabinet colleagues and some officials have criticized their presidents after they left their positions, Tillerson’s remarks may be the most direct appraisal of a sitting president by his senior Cabinet member in recent years.

Tillerson has not been shy about offering views that appear to contradict the White House on a range of issues from NATO to the Qatar crisis and North Korea. The former ExxonMobil CEO has long had a reputation for bluntness, a trait he’s demonstrated repeatedly as a Cabinet member. But his remarks on Sunday are his strongest yet.

Just moments earlier, Matthews, the Fox News host, had asked Tillerson about the UN panel’s criticism that cited “failure at the highest political level” to “reject and condemn” hate groups. Tillerson responded: “I don’t believe anyone doubts the American people’s values or the commitment of the American government or the government’s agencies to advancing those values and defending those values.” The president, apparently, is not included.