In his first day on the job as US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, the former boss of ExxonMobil, displayed a quality in short supply in the early Trump administration: humility.
“Hi. I’m the new guy,” Tillerson told State Department employees gathered to greet him the morning after his confirmation by the Senate.
Tillerson seemed to take pains to tamp down an uprising in the department over new US president Donald Trump’s ban on access to the US by travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries. About 1,000 diplomats and other employees have signed a letter dissenting from Trump’s decision, and the White House has responded by telling them to quit if they cannot observe administration policy.
The disgruntlement is not only over Muslim visitors, but the anti-internationalist bent of Trump, who is seeking to tear down the seven-decade-old firmament of global order that was invented and championed by American diplomats. In addition, Hillary Clinton, whom Trump beat in the election, was herself secretary of state in the Obama administration, and retains a well of loyalty in the department.
Tillerson explicitly took note of this divide, acknowledging that there was a “hard-fought election,” and continued resentment over the outcome. “But we cannot let our personal convictions overwhelm” the ability of the State Department to do its job, he said.
He made a stark impression by setting out core principles that would be throw-away lines in any other administration, vowing to emphasize accountability, honesty, and respect toward every employee.
“Let us extend respect to each other, even when we disagree,” he said.