Tillerson takes a final swipe on his way out of Washington, calls city 'mean sprited'

Rex Tillerson

By Abigail Tracy,Vanity Fair 

Early in what would become a controversial tenure as America’s top diplomat, Rex Tillerson telegraphed that he was unwilling to play the Washington game, let alone participate in the backstabbing and power-jockeying culture that has come to define the Donald Trump administration, cutting a slight profile for a secretary of state and ceding foreign-policy ground to Nikki Haley at the United Nations and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and top adviser. 

That reticence, in retrospect, may have proved Tillerson’s downfall—or perhaps his saving grace. But as he spoke Thursday to hundreds of State Department staffers who had gathered in the marbled lobby of the Harry S. Truman Building to bid him adieu, Tillerson did not squander the opportunity to take a final swing at the D.C. swamp that made his life hell over the past 14 months.

“This can be a very mean-spirited town,” Tillerson said in his characteristic Texas drawl. “But you don’t have to choose to participate in that.”

Tillerson seemed to take a swipe, too, at the soon-to-be former boss who fired him last week via presidential tweet. 

“Never lose sight of your most valuable asset, the most valuable asset that you possess: your personal integrity. Not one of you were gifted it; you were born with it. It belongs to you, and always has, and will belong to you and you alone,” the former ExxonMobil C.E.O. said. “Only you can relinquish it or allow it to be compromised. Once you’ve done so, it is very, very hard to regain it. So guard it as the most precious thing you possess.”

A week after the shocking—albeit unsurprising—Cabinet shake-up that saw Tillerson supplanted at State by C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo, and the promotion of C.I.A. Deputy Director Gina Haspel, the farewell address was a staid affair. 

For Tillerson, the goodbye was surely a welcome, if somewhat humiliating end to a tumultuous tenure under Trump, whose chaotic management style was so at odds with the pragmatic, data-driven leadership that Tillerson had cultivated at Exxon. 

The transition was not entirely unwelcome by the department’s rank and file, either. One current State Department staffer described the sentiment surrounding Tillerson’s departure and Pompeo’s imminent arrival—timed to the start of next month—as “cautious optimism.”

After a year in which career civil and foreign-service officers watched as Tillerson hollowed out their ranks, presided over a traumatic talent exodus, and allowed the State Department’s standing to become a casualty of his poor relationship with Trump, staffers are looking forward to a change—any change. 

Some, were even said to be resentful at what they saw as an obligation to attend Tillerson’s last hurrah. 

“They are imploring people to go. I can’t stomach it,” a current State Department staffer lamented in a message that a former foreign-service officer shared with me. “I don’t hate the guy, but his negligent ignorance hurt people.”

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