The morning after his swearing in the White House, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was not shying away from the giant elephant in the U.S. State Department.
Speaking in the lobby of the department’s headquarters in Washington’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood, the former Exxon Mobil CEO seemed to acknowledge the internal tension that had developed since President Donald Trump temporarily barred refugees and the citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the country – drawing an opposition memo from State staffers with close close to 900 signatures.
“I know this was a hotly contested election, and we not all of feel the same way about the outcome. Each of us is entitled to the expression of our political beliefs. But we can not let our personal convictions overwhelm our ability to work as one team,” Tillerson told officials gathered to welcome him. “Let’s be understanding with each other about the times we live in.”
But otherwise it was a fairly warm, congenial speech, in which Tillerson is his trademark North Texas drawl went to great lengths to commend State Department staff’s great experience, calling them “among the finest public servants in the world.”
“Hi, I’m the new guy,” he quipped, drawing laughter from the officials that filled the lobby.
Speaking for roughly 20 minutes, Tillerson said he wasn’t going to address the “strategic direction” of the department and instead stuck to what he described as “core values” – which he identified as accountability, honesty and respect.
Looking for inspiration, he turned not to his own corporate home for the past four decades but one in Boston – pointing to signs posted in New England Patriots facilities that read, “Do Your Job.”
“It’s worked pretty well for the patriots over the years, as I must admit,” he said.
It probably didn’t hurt that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft are all well known friends of Trump’s.
But Tilleson also made clear change was coming, saying he might switch up “how things are traditionally done in this department.” One of those areas might be the security of foreign personnel, a hot button issue this election after the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya in 2012.
“When I wake up in the morning the very first thing I ask is, ‘are all our people safe,” he said. “It’s not just a priority for me. It’s a core value, and it will become a core value of this department.”
Before leaving the lectern to review the names inscribed on the lobby walls of State Department officials killed in the line of duty, he said, “in the words of Abraham Lincoln, they gave their last full measure of devotion.”