“The president speaks for himself”: Did Rex Tillerson just turn on Trump?

Did Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Just Turn on Trump?

Did Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Just Turn on Trump?

The Slatest
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Aug. 27 2017 2:23 PM

Did Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Just Turn on Trump?

USPOLITICSTRUMP
President Donald Trump speaks to the press alongside Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Aug. 11 at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Sunday news interviews are so predictable that it often seems guests are reading from a clearly defined script. But Fox News Sunday’s Christ Wallace seemed to be genuinely shocked when he lobbed what seemed to be a throwaway question at the end of his interview with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and got a very surprising answer. In short, the country’s chief diplomat suggested that the president of the United States doesn’t necessarily speak for the country when he talks about American values.

That surprising statement came after Wallace pointed out that a United Nations committee criticized the U.S. government for the response to Charlottesville. The document never actually mentioned Trump by name, but it did call on “the government of the United States of America, as well as high-level politicians and public officials, to unequivocally and unconditionally reject and condemn racist hate speech and crimes in Charlottesville and throughout the country.”

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Wallace asked Tillerson whether Trump’s words in recent weeks had made it more difficult to promote American values abroad. “We express America's values from the State Department—our commitment to freedom, our commitment to equal treatment of people the world over,” Tillerson said. “And that message has never changed.”

Tillerson went on to to note that he didn’t believe “anyone doubts the American people’s values.” When Wallace followed up by asking whether Trump’s statements on Charlottesville reflected American values, Tillerson answered with five words that seemed to speak volumes: “The president speaks for himself.” Wallace seemed to be genuinely taken aback by the answer and wondered whether Tillerson was “separating himself” from Trump’s remarks, Tillerson answered simply, “I’ve made my own comments as to our values.”

Eliot Cohen, a former counselor at the State Department, wrote on Twitter that it sure looked like the “Secretary of State just tossed the president of the United States under the bus.”

Tillerson answers in such a calm, even manner that it’s easy to miss the significance of what he’s saying. But his words are particularly hard hitting when you consider that they came mere days after economic adviser Gary Cohn said he drafted a resignation letter because he was so upset by Trump’s post-Charlottesville remarks. “This administration can and must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning these groups and do everything we can to heal the deep divisions that exist in our communities,” Cohn told the Financial Times.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.