WASHINGTON — In a veiled but powerful rebuke of President Trump, former Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson warned on Wednesday that American democracy is threatened by a “growing crisis in ethics and integrity.”
“If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom,” he said in a commencement address at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va.
Even small falsehoods and exaggerations are problematic, Mr. Tillerson said. (Mr. Trump is prone to both.)
“When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth even on what may seem the most trivial matters, we go wobbly on America,” Mr. Tillerson said.
“If we do not as Americans confront the crisis of ethics and integrity in our society and among our leaders in both the public and private sector — and regrettably at times even the nonprofit sector — then American democracy as we know it is entering its twilight years,” Mr. Tillerson warned.
The former Eagle Scout — who often cited a commitment to respect, integrity and accountability as the guideposts of his life and leadership — has been in near-seclusion at his Texas ranch since he was fired by tweet in March, just hours after returning from a trip through Africa. He had agreed to deliver the V.M.I. commencement address before he was fired.
Mr. Tillerson made a full-throated appeal for the benefits of free trade, warning of the “anxiety and fear about growth in foreign markets and about the global movement of jobs.” Mr. Trump spent years during his career — especially since entering politics — stirring that anxiety.
“We must acknowledge, however, that every nation has a right to aspire to a better quality of life, and that free trade and economic growth are the means by which opportunity is created for all people,” Mr. Tillerson said.
As a veteran of an administration that has threatened to rip up Nafta, impose billions in tariffs on rivals and allies alike, and uses “America First” as its guiding principle, Mr. Tillerson’s defenses of free trade and the aspirations of developing nations were notable.
His charge as secretary of state was to protect the United States from foreign threats. But on Wednesday, Mr. Tillerson made clear he believes one of the most profound dangers the country faces is from within. He told the V.M.I. cadets that as they enter they world they must “carefully consider the values and the culture of the organizations in which you seek to work.”
“Look for employers who set high standards for ethical conduct,” he said.