A United Nations committee last week criticized the Trump administration's response to events in Charlottesville, using striking language. The White House was specifically rebuked for "its failure at the highest political level to unequivocally reject and condemn the racist violent events and demonstrations."
With this in mind, Fox News' Chris Wallace asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson yesterday whether Donald Trump's racially inflammatory postures makes it more difficult to advocate on behalf of American values. Tillerson's response, to put it mildly, was unexpected.
TILLERSON: Chris, we express America's values from the State Department. We represent the American people. We represent America's values, our commitment to freedom, our commitment to equal treatment of people the world over. And that message has never changed.WALLACE: And when the president gets into the kind of controversy he does and the U.N. committee response the way it does, it seems to say they begin to doubt whether we're living those values.TILLERSON: I don't believe anyone doubts the American people's values or the commitment of the American government or the government's agencies to advancing those values and defending those values.WALLACE: And the president's values?TILLERSON: The president speaks for himself, Chris.
Take a moment to appreciate the significance of Tillerson's point. To hear the nation's chief diplomat tell it, the sitting president of the United States does not speak for the United States. The State Department, under Tillerson's vision, expresses America's values, but Donald Trump expresses nothing but his own perspective.
This clearly isn't in line with the American tradition, in which a president is routinely expected to speak on behalf of the nation. But just as importantly, this was an instance in which one of Trump's top cabinet secretaries effectively told the world that the United States shouldn't be defined by his boss' values.
If you watch the video of the exchange -- and I recommend that you do -- it's clear Chris Wallace was slightly taken aback by the secretary's answer. The Fox host asked Tillerson if he's separating himself from Trump's reaction to Charlottesville, and instead of saying, "No, of course not," the secretary of state replied, "I've made my own comments as to our vales as well in a speech I gave to the State Department this past week."
In other words, yes, he is separating himself from the president's racially inflammatory reaction to violence in Charlottesville.
It's difficult to think of a comparable dynamic. I don't know how much longer Tillerson will remain in Trump's cabinet, but when a secretary of state effectively tells a national television audience not to blame the United States for an American president's remarks, our nation's diplomatic efforts have entered uncharted waters.