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Rex TIllerson Throws Trump Under The Bus Over Charlottesville Response

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson refused to endorse President Trump’s comments about the events in Charlottesville, Virginia this morning, becoming the latest Cabinet member to distance himself from the President’s divisive remarks:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemingly distanced himself Sunday morning from President Donald Trump’s widely criticized responses to a deadly white supremacist rally earlier this month in Virginia, telling “Fox News Sunday” that there should be no doubt about the U.S. government’s commitment to long-held values but that “the president speaks for himself.”

Tillerson was asked Sunday about the president’s remarks in Phoenix last week, in which he defended his initial response to the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, which included a condemnation of “hatred, bigotry and violence — on many sides.” At a press conference days later, the president said there had been “very fine people” on both sides of the violent clashes between the white supremacists and the groups gathered to protest their presence.

The president’s response to the Charlottesville rally prompted a rebuke from the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which condemned what it called the “failure at the highest political level” to “unequivocally reject and condemn” the hate groups. Tillerson said Sunday that the nation’s commitment to combating discrimination should be without question.

“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,” Tillerson said. “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.”

“And the president’s values?” Fox anchor Chris Wallace followed up, to which the secretary of state replied: “The president speaks for himself, Chris.”

“Are you separating yourself from that, sir?” Wallace asked.

“I’ve spoken — I’ve made my own comments as to our values as well in a speech I gave to the State Department this past week,” Tillerson said.

Here’s the video of Tillerson’s comments:

Tillerson isn’t the only Cabinet member to speak out in the wake of President Trump’s divisive remarks following the violence in Charlottesville, which include both his initial comments and the statements he made at a press conference just a day after prepared remarks he made at the White House that were somewhat better. Late last week, Gary Cohn, the head of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, responded to nearly a weeks worth of pressure from national Jewish organizations calling on him and other Jewish members of Trump’s cabinet to take a stand against Trump’s implicit endorsement of the neo-Nazi rhetoric of the marchers and organizers of the rally in Charlottesville where participants were videotaped chanting Nazi-like slogans such as “Blood and Soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!.” Cohn finally responded last Friday with comments that clearly distanced himself from the President, and which indicate that he came close to resigning his position over the controversy:

Gary D. Cohn, the director of the White House Economic Council, wrote a resignation letter after President Trump blamed “both sides” in the deadly protest this month against a Charlottesville, Va., rally by white supremacists and neo-Nazis, according to three people familiar with the document.

Mr. Cohn ultimately changed his mind and decided in recent days to remain on as Mr. Trump’s chief economic adviser, said one person familiar with his thinking.

But in a stunning critique of the president, Mr. Cohn told The Financial Times in an interview published on Friday that the Trump administration “can and must do better” to condemn hate groups and “do everything we can to heal the deep divisions that exist in our communities.”

Mr. Cohn is an architect of a broad set of tax reforms that the White House hopes will deliver the first legislative victory of Mr. Trump’s tumultuous administration. The president next week will travel to Springfield, Mo., in a push to sell the tax reform package.

But Mr. Cohn was anguished, according to a friend and two other people familiar with his thinking, by Mr. Trump’s remarks after the Aug. 12 violence that resulted in the death of a 32-year-old woman who was protesting neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan demonstrators in Charlottesville.

On Aug. 15, Mr. Cohn stood nearby in the lobby of Trump Tower, where the president told reporters there also were “very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville rally. After Mr. Trump left, Mr. Cohn stood uncomfortably fielding questions about the president’s statements, and he repeatedly declined to comment.

He debated for over a week with his wife and friends on whether to quit, according to the people familiar with his thinking. This week, Mr. Cohn decided to remain in his job, believing he could be more effective as a public servant inside the White House than out of it.

He is one of the few Jewish members in the administration who have publicly condemned Mr. Trump’s remarks about Charlottesville, although he has quietly disagreed with the president on a number of policy matters.

As Mr. Trump stood by his equivocal comments on Charlottesville and business leaders left presidential advisory panels in protest, Mr. Cohn told The Financial Times, he felt “enormous pressure” to step down. Various friends, and Mr. Cohn’s wife, were at one point among those who were urging him to resign, said several people familiar with their advice.

A senior administration official said the president was not surprised by Mr. Cohn’s remarks to The Financial Times. Another official said the sentiments had been relayed clearly to Mr. Trump, and Mr. Cohn had said that if asked, he would say how he felt.

(…)

It is highly unusual for a senior member of any presidential administration to publicly discuss the possibility of stepping down. Geoff Garin, a veteran Democratic pollster who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, said even though Mr. Cohn did not criticize Mr. Trump by name in the Financial Times interview, “the comments are still very tough and very blunt, including his comments about the push-and-pull whether to stay and whether to go.”

“There’s no effort to conceal the fact that what Trump said was wrong and troubling,” Mr. Garin said. “And it’s hard to think of very many precedents for somebody like that who is a high-ranking presidential adviser.”

Mr. Cohn told The Financial Times that “as a Jewish American, I will not allow neo-Nazis ranting ‘Jews will not replace us’ to cause this Jew to leave his job.”

So far there has been no response from the White House to Tillerson’s remarks, but it’s worth noting that the response to Cohn’s remarks was not positive. While the article does quote a senior Administration official saying the President was “not surprised” by Cohn’s remarks, other reports have said that Trump was privately furious with Cohn when his remarks became public shortly before the President left for Camp David for the weekend. Additionally, Roger Stone, who remains close to Trump even though he’s not part of the White House staff, said via his Twitter account that Cohn should be “fired immediately for his public attack” on the President. The Washington Post reported, for example, that Trump could end up reconsidering his inclination to appoint Cohn as the next Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board when Janet Yellin’s term comes to an end later this year. In the private world, Breitbart News, once again headed by former Presidential adviser Steve Bannon, attacked Cohn while simultaneously praising Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin, who refused to condemn Trump as has Elaine Chao, Trump’s Transportation Secretary who is also the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In addition to Cohn and Tillerson, Trump also received something of a rebuke over his remarks from within the military. Only days after Trump’s remarks, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued public statements via their respective Twitter accounts saying that the U.S. military remains committed to standing against bigotry and hatred. Secretary of Defense James Mattis backed up his Chiefs in a public statement early last week.

One could, I suppose, criticize these officials for not resigning their positions in response to Trump’s statement, and that’s a perfectly legitimate position to take in this controversy. At the same time, though, it’s worth noting that many of these people, especially Tillerson and Mattis, seem to have agreed to take on the jobs that they have for the primary purpose of serving their country, not as an endorsement of the President. Given that, they likely feel that they have a responsibility to stay around and do what they can for the good of the country notwithstanding the mercurial and often irrational person occupying the Oval Office at the moment. This seems to me to be especially important with regard to people like Mattis and Tillerson, who are largely recognized as voices of reason inside the Administration on some of the most important issues facing the nation and the world. Along with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, these two men are arguably the most important members of the Administration at a time when the United States is dealing with crisis points in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, and North Korea. Were they to step aside, or be replaced by people who are far less trustworthy in these areas such as former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, who was reportedly on Trump’s short list for Secretary of State, the nation would be in serious danger of doing something incredibly stupid on some of the most important issues facing the world today, they would end up doing more harm than good. Of course, there’s nothing stopping Trump from firing all of these people for their efforts to distance themselves from him, but he seems for now at least to recognize that his foreign policy team is as good as its ever going to be.

In any case, Tillerson deserves credit for his rebuke of the President. Now other members of the Cabinet need to speak up.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. al-Ameda says:

    One could, I suppose, criticize these officials for not resigning their positions in response to Trump’s statement, and that’s a perfectly legitimate position to take in this controversy. At the same time, though, it’s worth noting that many of these people, especially Tillerson and Mattis, seem to have agreed to take on the jobs that they have for the primary purpose of serving their country, not as an endorsement of the President.

    There is some of that, to be sure, but what stands out to me is that Tillerson does not need Trump, much in the same way that Trump does not need most Republicans. Tillerson is free to speak his mind and he can walk away from State when it pleases him to do so.

    I think you’re right, I can see Trump handing the keys to John Bolton, not something I look forward to. With Trump it can always get worse.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  2. CSK says:

    Every news outlet that’s reporting on this–which is all of them–is casting the story in terms of Tillerson sharply distinguishing himself from Trump because Trump’s remarks were repulsive. That’s what’s really going to drive Trump nuts: the fact that the portrayal of Tillerson will be positive, and the portrayal of Trump negative.

    It won’t be just that Trump will see Tillerson as stabbing him in the back; it’ll be that Tillerson made himself look good while doing it.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 0

  3. michael reynolds says:

    It’s like watching stop-motion video of animal evolution from protozoa to the simplest vertebrates. Of course Tillerson is a grown man who still has the spine of a salamander, but I suppose it’s a start. And Paul Ryan has developed as many as a half-dozen linked nerve cells. He’s still in the cartilaginous stage so we’re not seeing actual spine, more like a primitive spine precursor.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 26 Thumb down 1

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Meh, Tillerson and Cohn put “distance between themselves and trump” by moving a few chairs down the cabinet table. It is a distinction without a difference.

    In any case, Tillerson deserves credit for his rebuke of the President.

    As to this, will anybody even notice? Tillerson is the most ignored person in the Trump Admin. He has absolutely no influence over policy and no staff whatsoever with which to implement policy. I’m sure when trump was told what Tillerson said, he replied, “Rex Who???”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @michael reynolds: Cephalopods. Ryan has the spine of a squid. Tillerson is more akin to an octopus, much more intelligent and searching for the hole he can escape thru.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  6. CSK says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Well, Tillerson’s certainly getting a lot of attention now. If he was looking for a way to rise from obscurity, he hit on the perfect method.

    I’m wondering if this is prefatory to him tossing his resignation in Trump’s face.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK:

    Well, Tillerson’s certainly getting a lot of attention now.

    And that’s the part that will piss off trump. Hell, trump probably won’t even be able to understand what RexT said.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  8. CSK says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    That was pretty much precisely my point. What Trump will understand, however, is that all of a sudden Rex is getting a lot of favorable notice for speaking out and Trump himself is not getting any favorable notice.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  9. UncomfortablyNumb says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: And in subphylum Vertebrata we see irrefutable proof of the Peter Principle in its species Homo sapiens. It’s a package deal.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  10. CSK says:

    @al-Ameda:

    Bolton will never have a job at State. Trump hates his mustache.

    True story.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  11. Gustopher says:

    Has he resigned in protest?

    Has he made it significantly harder for white nationalists to serve in the administration?

    Has he stated that he has concerns about serving in an administration that gives safe harbor to white nationalists?

    These are just words, and the minimal words at that. Unless there is something happening behind the scenes, I see no reason to praise him for what amounts to basic self-preservation of his reputation.

    When the tell all books come out — and they will — they may surprise us with information about Tillerson going up against the white nationalist alt-right, and then he will be due some praise. But, until that time, I think it is worth remembering that we have no idea what Rex Tillerson is doing in the State Department other than taking up space.

    McMaster gets a pass because he’s been handing us a white nationalist head on a platter for the past two weeks running — plus a Scaramucci, whatever the hell that was.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  12. Davebo says:
  13. CSK says:

    @Gustopher:

    Don’t you mean Kelly rather than McMaster in terms of booting the white nationalists? Kelly certainly booted Scaramucci, Gorka, and Bannon.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  14. teve tory says:

    @CSK:

    Bolton will never have a job at State. Trump hates his mustache.

    True story.

    well i suppose nobody’s all bad.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  15. Gustopher says:

    @CSK: Yes I do.

    In my defense, I am notoriously stupid.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  16. CSK says:

    @Gustopher:

    I disagree.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  17. Moosebreath says:

    Tillerson said “the president speaks for himself.”

    Sorry, but that is not the way it works in this country. The President, by virtue of his office, speaks for the government as a whole. Tillerson’s rebuke of the President, while showing Tillerson in a good light, does not change the fact that the person whose job it is to speak for the country has made it abundantly clear that he relishes the support of those whose views are so deplorable that all others run away from them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. Moosebreath says:

    @Moosebreath:

    To clarify my point, just before Tillerson’s line, he said “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.” And my response is that to the contrary, Trump’s positions are the ones which have the largest influence on the question of “the commitment of the American government or the government’s agencies to advancing those values and defending those values”, not Tillerson’s, not Cohn’s, not anyone else’s.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  19. grumpy realist says:
  20. gVOR08 says:

    I composed a strongly worded and compelling rebuttal to Doug’s thesis that Cohn acted honorably. However there is still much work to be done in weaning Doug away from his Libertarian views, so I didn’t post it. Aren’t I an upstanding fellow?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. Paul Hooson says:

    Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley are both rising as two very decent and capable personalities in this troubled administration. Both are proving themselves as very effective, where even any incoming future Democratic administration should consider their continued service. Haley and Tillerson were able to get both Russia and China to agree to new sanctions against North Korea among other constructive achievements.

    Sadly, the Trump Administration has too few decent mainstream conservatives like Haley or Tillerson.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  22. EddieInCA says:

    Question for the room:

    Who resigns first; Cohn or Tillerson?

    I have met Mnuchin, and he’s a f**king spineless weasel POS who made alot of money. In Hollywood, he financed alot of films, but no one ever took him seriously. They just took his money. So, given his ability to be a bootlicker to Trump, he won’t leave. All you need to know about Mnuchin is revealed by the vileness of his wife.

    Haley isn’t going to leave, as her reputation is actually growing in stature, rather than diminishing, which is amazing.

    So who resigns first? Cohn or Tillerson?

    My bet is Tilllerson, and within 90 days.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  23. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Paul Hooson: Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley are taking part in the gutting of the US State department and the UN respectively. Why would anyone hire someone experienced in self-immolation to do a job? No thanx, I’ll pass.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  24. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @EddieInCA: Same here, for the reasons cited in my first comment.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. CSK says:

    Interesting Tweet from Philippe Reines, a former state department official: “Going out on a limb here but I don’t think Rex gives a damn anymore what the President & White House thinks of him.”

    Sure seems like it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  26. wr says:

    @Paul Hooson: Tillerson is systematically destroying the State Department, refusing to fill hundreds of vacant and necessary positions, while shutting those few career employees left out of the decision making process. His sole saving grace is that he was willing to express mild discomfort with Trump’s endorsement of Nazis. I can’t imagine why anyone would think this would be enough to qualify him to work in a real administration.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  27. al-Alameda says:

    @EddieInCA:

    I have met Mnuchin, and he’s a f**king spineless weasel POS who made a lot of money

    May I infer from your comments that Mnuchin should be renditioned to Pyongyang post-haste?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @EddieInCA:

    I know Mnuchin from his street days, and I’ll concur with that sentiment. He’s exceptionally smelly.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  29. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Paul Hooson:

    Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley are both rising as two very decent and capable personalities in this troubled administration.

    While good to see, this is a very low bar. I dare say that we could pull two random people off the street who would be able to acquit themselves as equally capable to Haley and Tillerson.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  30. MarkedMan says:

    @HarvardLaw92: HL92, off topic, but I was wondering if you’ve seen this column by Philip Bump in the Washington Post? He seems much less sanguine about the effect of pardons on the amueller investigation than you do.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  31. Paul Hooson says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I don’t agree with the politics of Tillerson and Haley. But, they at least represent mainstream conservatism compared to the wacko philosophy of Trump or some of his cronies.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0