Screengrab via State Department

Tillerson to State Dept. employees: ‘We are on the same team’

Tillerson said he knew 'it was a hotly contested election' but asked that people do their jobs.

Feb 28, 2020, 4:42 pm*

Tech

Amrita Khalid 

Amrita Khalid

Newly confirmed Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson on Thursday stressed that he had faith in the State Department’s foreign and civilian workforce.

“State Department staffers in the field are not just conduits for policies and plans; you are our emissaries of our nation and the ideals we stand for. When people see you, they see America.” said Tillerson, in his first official address at agency headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Tillerson also praised the nearly 11,000 members of the State Department who work inside the United States. 

“The Foreign Service is not the only component of the State Department. The Civil Service workforce at the State Department plays an indispensable role in all we achieve, and we cannot attain success without the mission-critical services that you provide,” said Tillerson. 

Uncertainty over whether the former Exxon-Mobil CEO could command respect in the State Department appears to have vanished. Tillerson’s short, but rousing speech drew cheers and applause from the hundreds of State Department employees who gathered to watch at the headquarters in Foggy Bottom. 

Tillerson was more than a half hour late to Foggy Bottom due to having attended the National Prayer Breakfast earlier that morning

“It seems that at this year’s Prayer Breakfast, people felt the need to pray a little longer,” joked Tillerson, a line that drew laughs from the crowd. 

Tillerson’s address comes amid tensions between State Department employees and the Trump administration. 

Nearly 1,000 State Department employees signed on to a memo delivered through the agency’s Dissent Channel that criticized President Donald Trump‘s immigration executive order that banned refugees and citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer dismissed the memo and said agency employees who “had a problem with” Trump’s executive order could “pack up and go.”

Tillerson seemed to be responding to Spicer’s dismissal when he referenced the skills and abilities of the State Department’s workforce. “You have accumulated the knowledge and experience that cannot be replicated anywhere else,” said Tillerson. 

It’s unlikely any dissent over Tillerson will hold for long. The oil executive is the diplomatic agency’s sole voice in the National Security Council, which includes former Breitbart executive and White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and National Security Advisor Mike Flynn

Tillerson was diplomatic in accounting for any anti-Trump factions in the State Department. 

“I know this was a hotly contested election and we do not all feel the same way about the outcome,” said Tillerson. 

But he stressed that State Department employees could not let their personal convictions prevent them from doing their jobs. 

“I want us to be honest with one another. We’re on the same team. We share the same mission,” said Tillerson. 

In many ways, Tillerson’s address was defined by what he chose not to say rather than what he mentioned.

Tillerson made zero references to tweets that Trump sent out on Wednesday evening and Thursday morning in which the president criticized Iran, Australia, and Mexico. Nor did Tillerson comment on the global uncertainty that has arisen due to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and renegotiate new trade deals. 

The secretary of state made no mention of Trump’s travel ban or the confusion it caused. Employees at the State Department and Department of Homeland Security said they were blindsided by Trump’s signing of the travel ban last Friday. 

The Senate confirmed Tillerson on Wednesday afternoon in the most divisive confirmation vote for a secretary of state in recent history. A total of 43 senators—all Democrats—voted in opposition to his confirmation.

Both Republican and Democratic senators expressed serious concerns about Tillerson’s ties to Russia and President Vladimir Putin

The future of U.S. sanctions on Russia—which the Obama administration launched in response to the nation’s aggression in Crimea and intensified after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 election—remains unknown. 

Tillerson in 2014 personally lobbied the White House in protest of sanctions on Russia, according to Bloomberg. In Senate confirmation hearings, Tillerson hinted that a different approach may be needed for Russia and that the nation may be willing to work with the U.S. in fighting ISIS

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) failed in his vow to delay Tillerson’s nomination until he received a satisfactory response on Trump’s immigration executive order.

In the end, three Democrats and one independent lawmaker, Sen. Angus King of Maine, broke with party ranks. 

King, who has called Trump’s travel ban “the worst foreign policy decision since the Iraq War,” said on CNN Wednesday night that he hoped Tillerson would enable Trump to make more reasonable decisions. 

Tensions between Iran and the United States have reached a boiling point. Iran is included in Trump’s controversial travel ban on seven Muslim-majority nations, and Tillerson has called for a review of the Iran nuclear deal

Iran confirmed on Wednesday that it tested a ballistic missile earlier this week but insisted it was not in violation of its nuclear agreement. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn on Wednesday lashed out at the move by Iran and declared that Iran was “on notice.” Trump reiterated Flynn’s sentiments in a tweet on Thursday morning

In a live address on state television, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani dismissed Trump’s attacks on Iran and called the U.S. president “a political novice.”

“It will take [Trump] a long time and will cost the United States a lot, until he learns what is happening in the world,” said Rouhani, who led the Iran nuclear deal with the Obama administration.

Global leaders have raised concerns that Trump’s travel ban will help ISIS

Capping off the Trump administration’s rocky start to foreign policy, Trump hung up on Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last weekend in the middle of a heated dispute over refugees, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday. The report claims that Turnbull asked Trump if the U.S. planned to honor an agreement it made under the Obama administration to take in 1,250 refugees from Pacific island camps

Trump reportedly accused Australia of “trying to import the next Boston Bombers.”

A few hours after the Post story published, Trump took to Twitter to express his anger at the resettlement deal. 

Turnbull claimed that Trump agreed, in the end, to take the refugees, which the U.S. embassy later confirmed.

Former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr told the Sydney Morning Herald that the call between Trump and Turnbull will force Australia to “drop any romantic notions” of the U.S.-Australia alliance and become “more realistic.”

“America has taken a nationalist direction,” said Carr, “and won’t be returning to global leadership as we’ve understood it.” 

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*First Published: Feb 2, 2017, 12:04 pm