The graduates of Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia got a personalized apocalyptic warning from a former Trump administration official on Wednesday, May 16. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned of an "ethical crisis" among U.S. leaders in his speech and appeared to criticize his former boss, President Donald Trump, and people are taking notice. Honestly, Rex Tillerson's commencement speech not-so-low-key shaded Trump, and personally, I'm here for it.
“As I reflect upon the state of our American democracy, I observe a growing crisis in ethics and integrity,” Tillerson said in his speech, according to Politico. “If we do not as Americans confront the crisis of ethics and integrity in our society and among our leaders in both public and private sector — and regrettably, at times, even the non-profit sector — then American democracy, as we know it, is entering its twilight years.”
Woof. Tillerson reportedly agreed to give the speech before he was fired in March, per The New York Times. That could explain his candor and general not-giving-a-f*ck. Seriously though, this is coming from the former head of the State Department, so his comments carry some weight. He continued to deliver what seemed like obvious criticism of the Trump administration, without necessarily mentioning Trump by name.
"If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no long grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom," Tillerson said. He continued on these points about accuracy and reality about halfway through his speech, saying,
A responsibility of every American citizen to each other is to preserve and protect our freedom by recognizing what truth is and is not; what a fact is and is not; and begin by holding ourselves accountable to truthfulness and demand our pursuit of America's future be fact-based. Not based on wishful thinking. Not hoped-for outcomes made and shallow promises, but with a clear-eyed view of the facts as they are, and guided by the truth that will set us free to seek solutions to our most daunting challenges.
Sound like he's criticizing anyone you know?
For much of Tillerson's one-year stint as secretary of state, he had been reported to be in disagreement with the president on major foreign policy issues, like the Paris Climate Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. After months of denying he would fire him, Trump on March 13 announced he was replacing Tillerson with then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Tillerson reportedly learned of his firing on Twitter, in typical Trump fashion.
In an ordinary presidency, it wouldn't be so hard to keep up with the administration's firings and hirings, but this is no such presidency. Still, though it's important to recognize that while Tillerson's comments are certainly unprecedented for such a recent former high-ranking official, the dude might be a little bitter. Journalists on Twitter were quick to point out that Tillerson's sudden interest in transparency and truth might be a bit hypocritical.
"Fired SecState Rex Tillerson calls for a "fierce defense of the truth and a common set of facts," CNN diplomatic correspondent Michelle Kosinski tweeted, adding "(However this is the guy who didn't want us on his plane)."
David Nakamura, a reporter with The Washington Post, tweeted that "Rex Tillerson brought a single, handpicked reporter on a trip to Japan, China and South Korea under embargo that nothing was published until the end of the trip." (The reporter who went on that trip with Tillerson, Erin McPike, responded to Nakamura that there was no embargo.)
Tillerson has previously admitted to not being a huge press-access person, per the U.K.'s The Guardian newspaper. “I’m not a big media press access person," Tillerson said in March 2017. "I personally don’t need it.”
So on one hand you should probably take this with a grain of salt, but also on the other hand, he was secretary of state for an entire year, and that in and of itself is a big deal. The rest of his speech was pretty vanilla — your usual "go out into the world and do great work" commencement nonsense.