Tillerson Decries ‘Mean-Spirited’ D.C. in Farewell Address

Tillerson gave a four-minute farewell speech to State Department employees. His legacy will last much longer.

Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gives a farewell address to State Department staff in Washington on March 22. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gives a farewell address to State Department staff in Washington on March 22. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to project an air of civility in his departure from the Trump administration.

Barely a week after his unceremonious firing by President Donald Trump via Twitter, the reserved secretary gave a brief farewell address to his employees, decrying Washington as “mean-spirited” and urging employees to maintain their integrity and respect.

“This can be a very mean-spirited town,” Tillerson said his speech, a not-so-subtle jab at the president, though he didn’t mention Trump by name. “But you don’t have to choose to participate in that.”

The comments drew loud cheers and applause from State Department employees. But the warm farewell reception glossed over simmering employee resentment at how he managed the department, including controversial policies that will outlast his 14-month tenure.

Tillerson’s efforts to trim the ranks of what he considered a bloated State Department soured relations with his own agency and many lawmakers on Capitol Hill. He pushed through hiring freezes, forced retirements, and firings that will affect staffing levels and expertise for years. Tillerson also defended steep White House budget cut proposals and never did get a handle on his ambitious plans to reorganize the department’s vast bureaucracy.

Some officials, disgruntled at how he managed the State Department, opted to skip the “Rexit” ceremony.

“I sympathize with his plight but he honestly was kind of a lame duck,” one official who skipped the ceremony says. “If I felt like he had actually done more for us, maybe I’d consider” attending.

“I couldn’t stand the schadenfreude of being there,” another says.

Tillerson’s supporters say he managed as Trump’s top diplomat as best he could under a mercurial commander in chief, and his efforts to trim the department’s vast bureaucracy were well intentioned.

Critics say he leaves the department in tatters.

Under Tillerson’s tenure, the number of top-ranking career officials plummeted. A hiring freeze and promotion freeze have also depleted the lower and middle ranks. With Tillerson out and the No. 3 State Department official Tom Shannon slated to retire, eight out of 10 of the department’s top posts will at least temporarily sit empty. The two remaining are Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and Heather Nauert, the acting undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, who is also the department’s spokeswoman. She got that job after Trump fired her predecessor — hours after he axed Tillerson — for having disputed the White House timeline on the secretary of state’s dismissal.

Meanwhile, Trump has yet to put forth names for top State Department posts, including dozens of ambassadorships and assistant secretaries of state.

The State Department disputes that it is being “gutted” and insists it can carry out its mission with current numbers and skilled career diplomats in interim roles.

Tillerson’s efforts to “redesign” the State Department stumbled amid outrage from within the department and fierce criticism from lawmakers. This year, it was rebranded an “Impact Initiative” and will carry on for now, if for no other reason than through bureaucratic inertia.

Tillerson did not mention Trump by name in his farewell speech, which lasted about only four minutes. But the former Eagle Scout’s message in his final remarks stood in stark contrast to the president, who earlier that morning challenged former Vice President Joe Biden on Twitter to a fist fight.

“I hope you will continue to treat each other with respect,” Tillerson told State Department employees. “We’re all just human beings trying to do our part.”

Sullivan has taken the reins at State until CIA Director Mike Pompeo can be confirmed by the Senate as the new secretary. Congressional staffers tell Foreign Policy that they expect his nomination hearing to be in April.

Now, after a tumultuous year and then some under Tillerson, Foggy Bottom braces for more change.

“I think we all wish a lot of things could have been handled differently, but when I hear about how this all played out, it’s rough for him,” one official says. “Now I just pray we make it through Pompeo and beyond.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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