WASHINGTON — Making his debut as America’s global envoy, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought Thursday to reassure U.S. diplomats who are anxious after a turbulent first two weeks of President Donald Trump’s presidency. Still, he warned diplomats that unspecified changes would be coming.
Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil CEO, used his first appearance at the State Department to praise the members of America’s diplomatic corps as “among the finest public servants in the world.” He said he intends to pursue diplomacy based on core principles of honesty, respect and accountability.
Yet he also noted that he was assuming the role following a “hotly contested election.”
“Each of us is entitled to the expression of our political beliefs,” Tillerson said. “But we cannot let out personal convictions overwhelm our ability to work as one team.”
The incoming secretary’s remarks alluded to a “dissent cable” signed by hundreds of diplomats challenging President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees. Although the White House had warned diplomats as signatures were being collected that they should “get with the program” or resign, Tillerson adopted a notably more amicable tone.
“No one will tolerate disrespect of anyone,” Tillerson said to hundreds of State Department employees who gathered in a lobby on their boss’ first day. “We are human beings first.”
Tillerson said diplomats should be aware that he might make changes to “how things are traditionally done,” although he did not elaborate. Rather than move rashly, Tillerson said, he is gathering information “on what processes should be reformed.”
“Change for the sake of change can be counterproductive, and that will never be my approach,” Tillerson said in his booming baritone voice, accented with the twang of his Texas background.
After speaking for a few minutes, Tillerson paused for a moment of silence at a wall listing the name of fallen U.S. diplomats.
On his first day, Tillerson planned to meet with Jordan’s King Abdullah II and with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel. He was sworn in Wednesday evening in the Oval Office.
For Tillerson, the diplomatic landscape looks far different than it did when Trump nominated him less than seven weeks ago. Trump has rattled diplomats with tough talk toward Mexico, Australia and Iran while stoking concerns about potentially dramatic changes of U.S. position toward Russia, Taiwan, and Israel and the Palestinian territories.
An engineer by training who rose to the top of oil giant Exxon, Tillerson won Senate confirmation despite an effort to derail him by Democrats who criticized his close working relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Several Republican senators who raised concerns about Tillerson during his hearings ultimately voted for him.
Though he has no experience as a diplomat, Tillerson used his confirmation hearings to portray himself as a levelheaded tactician with foreign policy views well within the mainstream.
“Some people didn’t like Rex because he actually got along with leaders of the world. I said, ‘No, that’s a good thing,'” Trump said Thursday morning at the National Prayer Breakfast, which Tillerson also attended. “I think he’s going to go down as one of the great, great secretaries.”