May 16, 2018, 1:56 PM ET

Tillerson warns of 'crisis of ethics and integrity' in US

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Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had a stark warning Wednesday about a "crisis of ethics and integrity" and the dangers of "alternative realities" and leaders who "seek to conceal the truth."

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In his first major speech since he was fired by President Donald Trump in March, Tillerson gave the commencement address at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., and although he never mentioned Trump specifically, the pointed remarks appeared to be shots at his former boss.

"If our leaders seek to conceal the truth or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom," he told the graduates.

At the center of "a growing crisis of ethics and integrity," he said, was that kind of assault on the truth, the "central tenet of a free society."

"When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth – even on what may seem the most trivial of matters – we go wobbly on America," Tillerson added. "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 nonprofit sector – then American democracy as we know it is entering its twilight years."

PHOTO: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump speaks to the press, Aug. 11, 2017, at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. <p itemprop= " onerror="this.src='http://a.abcnews.com/images/Politics/trump-tillerson-1-er-180110_3x2_992.jpg'" />Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump speaks to the press, Aug. 11, 2017, at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J.

In the face of that, it is every American's responsibility to each other "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," he said.

The former ExxonMobil CEO had a rocky relationship with the president, with many of their policy disagreements out in the open and Trump cutting him down on a handful of occasions with open rebukes. It was reported that he called the president a "moron," something he never denied, saying he would not deal with "petty nonsense."

But he was also criticized for mismanaging the State Department, instituting a hiring freeze that was seen as destructive and unnecessary, leaving top positions vacant or filled by officials in acting roles, and concentrating power within a small inner circle that alienated many employees.

He was also known for his distrust of the media, initially barring journalists from traveling with him and giving few interviews.

Tillerson joked that the role was not his favorite, saying that he had his dream job in 1992 at Exxon as a division manager over Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado: "All I ever wanted to do, it was the best job I ever had. It's all been downhill since," he said to laughs.

He also laid out three "beatitudes" from an old Boy Scout leader that could be taken as self-descriptions.

"Blessed is the man who can see you make a fool of yourself and doesn't think you've done a permanent job," he said to laughs and applause. "Blessed is the man who does not try to blame all of his failures on someone else. And blessed is the man that can say that the boy he was would be proud of the man he is."

Many of his lines, however, were not new. A proud Eagle Scout and former president of the Boy Scouts of America, he spoke at length about the importance of integrity to building trust and cooperation and solving problems, as he had several times as secretary, including in his farewell address in the department's lobby.

"We do not have to look far to find examples of the cost to individuals and to society when integrity is sacrificed for immediate gain or personal achievement. Such damage strikes at the very heart of a free society, it undermines the public trust in institutions and the overwhelming number of individuals, organizations who do live and compete by the rules every day," he said.

His message to graduates was to join organizations or work at companies that value integrity, and "Look for employers who set high standards for personal conduct and who reward ethical leadership."

The former top U.S. diplomat also dipped into foreign policy, taking some shots at President Trump's trade policy and criticism of U.S. allies.

"We must recognize the value of friends and allies, allies born of shared values and shared sacrifices... We must never take these long-held allies for granted. We must motivate and strengthen them, not just in our areas of complete agreement, but particularly in bridging our differences both in trading relations and in national security matters," he said

While Trump pursued protectionist trade policies and welcomed trade wars as "good, and easy to win," the global businessman in Tillerson fought against them, urging the president to reconsider steel and aluminum tariffs in one of the last battles that he lost while secretary.

"Here at home, [global economic] changes have led to anxiety and fear about the growth in foreign markets and about the global movement of jobs," he said Wednesday. "We must acknowledge, however, that every nation has a right to aspire to a better quality of life and that free trade and economic growth are the means by which opportunity is created for all people."

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  • gordo53

    This conversation should be about the dearth of ethics in politics. Most politicians lie, cheat and steal taxpayer money because it's all but impossible to make their "fundraising" quotas legitimately. I have been fortunate enough in my life to have had private conversations with a number of politicians. They all tell similar stories. Corruption is rampant because so few are ever indicted let alone convicted. Politicians flaunt the law because they can. In politics, as in organized crime, there is a strict no snitching rule. Failure to conform will end your political career or worse. Politics is a cesspool. There are no exceptions. The failure of our political system is largely responsible for the ongoing decline of America.

  • brian nrndss

    dnra: this it the pot calling the kettle black...............is the the big exxon exec. that inflated gas prices to billions

  • cyberbob19

    Not long ago lying was considered a great evil. Now it is the norm..... a game.
    Lying is the fastest way to destroy a soul.
    Lies from public officials should be a punishable offense by prison time.
    We now have an evil president insulting us with his self serving lies. Lies that are being condoned by many culpable people.

    False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.
    Socrates

  • Hank R

    Mr. Tillerson is correct.

  • dennismorris

    An inspiring and profound speech by the former oil executive and Secretary of State - without knowing the specific details of his recent exit, it would appear his absence is a loss to the current Administration. May some fortunate publisher grab Mr. Tillerson and provide him the forum to expound on his sound values and appraise the state of the Country and World from his perspective, that he may continue serving the public through education.

  • JuPMod

    As much as I do not like Tillerson for ruining the State Dept., he does speak the truth here regarding the USA have a 'ethics crisis.' Trump have very low or nearly no ethics for the POTUS office. He does not care for anyone but himself. This nation is even worst than it was before 2017.

  • Truth-B-Me

    Rex, thanks for speaking the truth about your old boss. Every single intelligent American knows that Trump is a pathological liar, a racist and a sexual assaulter. And everyone knows that his business empire and entire family are crooks and that the campaign conspired with the Russians. Intelligent people know all of this, yet the GOP continues to enable this fake president..............they are toast come November!!

  • PhilM1957

    Sad that society touts as "ethical" that which has always been unethical. Tillerson will no doubt become touted by radical liberals and other Trump haters now. Remember when he was being opposed by these very same people? Seriously, how can a person promote ethical behavior by acting unethical?

  • oldschool

    I'm sure that Trumps supporters will attack this man who left the corrupt Trump administration and is now sending a message of warning to the voters that they are being conned.

  • Dem Bones-r-me

    What’s hysterical about this whole thing is that most of you think this is a new problem that didn’t exist till Trump was elected. You’re either naive or willfully ignorant. Of course it could just be you don’t like the crook in charge because he’s not your crook. LMFAO!!

  • Knute

    I love it. The evil CEO of an evil corporation in a evil industry, oil, is now the darling of the left wing cause for saying generic ethics and Boy Scout statements that left wing bias can use to attack Trump.

  • anastasiabeaverhousen

    "If our leaders seek to conceal the truth or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom..."

    Big talk from a former head of Exxon, which has spent billions "sowing doubt" about the causation between their product and global climate change.

  • John Mccartney

    The Virginia Military lnstitute picked Rex for a commencement speaker
    that tells me they have a leadership problem, Rex has proved he was more concerned with World perception of the u.s. then what was beneficial for the u.s.

  • Lee Thompson

    All we have to do is look at who is POTUS for proof of the crisis Tillerson is referring to. "The fish rots from the head."

  • Donald J Chump

    There's a reason why defunct trump U never taught a class in ethics.

  • Bud Simpson

    It looks like Trump is really starting to receive what he has sown. His condemnation, insults and false hoods he's heaped on his administration staff is now coming back to haunt him. I'm sure even those that have been most loyal to him are beginning to tire having to respond to scandal after scandal and lie after lie.

    Trump may be at the beginning of abandonment by those that have desperately tried to defend him. However, it's Trump's own conduct that is chafing at their support.

    No one can stand to defend the King without clothing for very long.

  • Andrew

    Tillerson is a good man. For him to warn of these things is important. The republicans among us should heed the warning. The warnings rise above GOP party politics.

  • Omar Majiet

    If the leadership lacks morality, dont expect anything from the administration.

  • Pedro

    The majority already know this and the core will ignore it.
    The polls are where all this gets resolved.

  • Planet Earth

    I'm sure these cadets are thrilled at the prospect of having to take orders from a former gameshow host and proven serial liar

  • Donald J Chump

    I love those pics of chump talking with his hands with that look on his face like he knows what he's talking about. It shows you just how much of a charlatan he is.

  • B-K KnightRider

    The ironically scary thing is that Trump and his adoring fans can completely agree with Tillerson AND rationalize away what he said by claiming he is talking about the media and Trump's opponents without ever recognizing let alone admitting that Tillerson was talking about Trump and Trump's supporters.

  • (redacted)

    Tillerson always looked like he wanted to throw up standing next to Trump. He had to have just despised him.

  • Leo Marvin

    This is an interesting and timely speech by Mr. Tillerson. He's correct about what the consequences of lost integrity mean to our nation. Keep in mind that, as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, Trump is merely a symptom of a larger problem. People say things like "my truth" all the time. There is only THE truth. Anything else is counterfeit.

  • ron sperry

    Thank you Mr. TIllerson. Please keep up the good work. Thoughtful Americas needs to stand up to this clown we call our President.

  • kritikosman

    You're lucky to be outta that mad mess Rex!!

  • Ray

    "Moron",..."Idiot",...."Liar". These three words best describe our current president. The really sad part is that anywhere from 35-42% of our country still believe in this clown.

  • piboson

    We have a culture of unethical and ammoral behavior with this so-called administration.

    Little Donny John and Pagan Pence, the very worst of humanity!

  • piboson

    You know we are in really deep sh**t when the swamp starts complaining about ethics and integrity. Little Dinky John and Pagan Pence, the very worst of humanity. THE VERY WORST!!!

  • Kajsa Williams

    If you don't have the guts to point to specific people, save your breath Tillerson. Washington is full of gutless people who will say something's wrong but won't stand up and really fight.

  • Omar Majiet

    Ethics, morality, principles. These are sorely lacking.

  • Kajsa Williams

    We have a crisis in ethics. No kidding. This should have been obvious to anyone with a brain the size of a pea for more than a year now. I can't believe they're calling this news. There's nothing "new" about it.

  • mclnVA

    Well you're dirty and sweet, clad in black
    Don't look back and I love you
    You're dirty and sweet, oh yeah
    Well you're slim and you're weak
    You've got the teeth of a hydra upon you
    You're dirty sweet and you're my girl.
    Get it on, bang the gong, get it on
    Get it on, bang the gong, get it on
    ———-

    Get it? It’ll come to you.

  • Cliff Ross

    Tillerson does not have guts enough to name Trump??? Shame, shame, shame !

  • SearingTruth

    Americans, of all political persuasions, stand against President Trump and his White Nationalists fellow citizens.

    And it's important to remember that conservatives are not White Nationalists. The old Republican Party was indeed conservative, and unfortunately was responsible for the rise of America's White Nationalists, but I sincerely believe they thought they could control them. And did not mean for this to happen.

    The idea was to throw them some verbal red meat every once in awhile so they'd vote Republican, and then just indulge as many ridiculous conspiracy theories as possible to keep them going.

    But, as those like Secretary Tillerson have now learned too late, whenever you feed evil it grows.

    And soon is bigger, and stronger, than those who believe they can surround it.

    That's why on the day President Trump rode down the escalator to deliver his now infamous speech to a frothing White Nationalist crowd I wrote the following ...
    ST

    "Behold Donald Trump, the monster the Republican Party created. Come to devour, even them."
    SearingTruth