Newly confirmed Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, met with staff at the State Department for the first time on Thursday, and addressed hundreds of officials in a speech that called for unity and understanding.
Tillerson, the former chairman of Exxon Mobil, was met with applause as he arrived over an hour late for his introduction – a delay caused by an extended national prayer breakfast he attended that morning with President Donald Trump.
“At this year’s prayer breakfast people felt the need to pray a little longer,” Tillerson joked with the crowd, before adding, “Hi, I’m the new guy.”
The audience laughed at Tillerson’s lighthearted introduction and he promptly thanked them for providing “such a warm reception.”
Confirming Tillerson as the Secretary of State could prove to be only a precursor to the real battle ahead, as more than 900 State Department officials signed a memo earlier this week denouncing President Trump’s recent executive order pertaining to refugees and immigrants, a “travel ban” that has proven controversial throughout the American political sphere, as well as abroad. He addressed his contentious senate confirmation hearings by joking, “having just come through for the first time, I can assure you the Senate still takes it as seriously as ever, they’re as energetic as ever, they’re as thorough as ever…” he paused for effect, “but we’re here.”
Tillerson approached the crowd with an almost conciliatory tone, seemingly well aware of the concerns held by many within his department, but calling on them to use the same professionalism they would exhibit in their analysis of foreign regimes now within their own nation.
“One of the great challenges and thrills for the State Department staff is deciding how to confront changing conditions in every corner of the world,” said Tillerson, “I encourage all of you to use your natural and well-developed skills to adapt to changes here at home as well.”
The new Secretary of State went on to acknowledge that many within the State Department did not support Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, and continue to approach his administration with a critical mindset. He seemed to welcome the differing beliefs, but made it clear that the department would need to come together despite opposing viewpoints for the sake of the nation.
“I know this was a hotly contested election and we do not all feel the same way about the outcome, each of us is entitled to expression of our political beliefs, but we cannot let our personal convictions overwhelm our ability to work as one team,” said Tillerson.
Tillerson drew laughs and applause at various times throughout his speech, including when he explained that he and his wife had planned on retiring prior to Trump’s request for him to serve in his cabinet.
“Renda and I were ready to head off to the ranch and enjoy our grandchildren,” he said. “But when I came back from my first meeting with President Trump and he asked me to do this, Renda said, ‘you didn’t know it but you’ve been in a 41-year training program for this job.’” The crowd chuckled and applauded as he spoke.
“Let’s make the American people proud of what we do in this building and beyond.” Tillerson took on a decidedly more somber tone as he reached the closing of his speech. “Inscribed on the walls in this lobby are the names of fallen Foreign Service personnel, and in the words of Abraham Lincoln, ‘they gave their last full measure of devotion. They died in service of causes far greater than themselves.’ As we move forward in this new era, it is important to honor the sacrifices of those who have come before us and reflect on the legacy that we inherit.”
Tillerson ended his speech by saying he was proud to be serving with the staff of the State Department, before taking a moment of silent observation for those who died in foreign service.
“In closing, I’m honored to be serving alongside each of you, as I serve our nation as the Secretary of State.”
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