He came, he saw, he got fired on Twitter. And now Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said farewell, with a parting plea Thursday to America’s diplomats not to let anyone violate their integrity.
Tillerson did not mention his erstwhile boss, President Donald Trump, as he spoke to several hundred State Department workers who gathered at headquarters in Foggy Bottom to watch him depart. Nor did he directly address the icy manner in which he was terminated last week after one of the shortest stints by a secretary of state in recent history.
“This can be a very mean-spirited town,” Tillerson said, eliciting laughter at first and then applause. “But you don’t have to choose to participate in that.”
When he arrived in the nation’s capital last year, Tillerson made no secret of his unwillingness to play the Washington-style games that turn governing into blood sport: one-upmanship, aggressive public posturing, surreptitious leaking and even sabotage. Weeks into his tenure, the Texas oilman famously declared he wasn’t big on press access, explaining, “I personally don’t need it.”
Others in Trump’s administration didn’t see it the same way, and Tillerson quickly found himself on the receiving end of negative reports, leaks from his rivals and mounting speculation about his future until being abruptly fired last week, four hours after returning from Africa. Often at odds with the White House, he also lost the confidence and support of many of the State Department’s 75,000 workers over his moves to cut the budget, leave key leadership positions vacant and downplay human rights and democracy-promotion as diplomatic priorities.
Still, there was sustained applause for several minutes as he departed the marbled lobby of the Harry S. Truman Building, the same lobby where the former Exxon Mobil CEO introduced himself as “the new guy” in his hallmark Texas drawl 14 months ago. A few former staffers whose tenures were even shorter than Tillerson’s also returned to see him off.
Then Tillerson set off for his home in Texas — “a more familiar climate,” Deputy Secretary John Sullivan joked, “which I know suits him well.” If the Senate agrees, he will soon be replaced by current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who frequently bumped heads with Tillerson over Iran and other issues.
“Never lose sight of your most valuable asset, the most valuable asset you possess: your personal integrity,” Tillerson says. “Only you can relinquish it or allow it to be compromised. Once you’ve done so, it is very, very hard to regain it. So guard it as the most precious thing you possess.”