It was a stunning moment. On Sunday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that the president of the United States does not speak for American values.
After deflecting questions from Fox News’ Chris Wallace about President Donald Trump’s failure to condemn white supremacist groups who incited deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, by saying that he and the State Department “represent America’s values,” Tillerson said that “the president speaks for himself.”
Tillerson’s statement caps a tumultuous two weeks in which Trump demonstrated that he has abandoned essential duties of the office, failing to provide basic, measured responses to violence and natural disasters.
Throughout last week, he continued to defend his widely condemned response to the violence in Charlottesville — in which he delayed and then backtracked on a denunciation of white nationalist, KKK and neo-Nazi groups — including during a campaign-style rally in Phoenix.
Trump’s failure to provide the most elementary leadership earned criticism from lawmakers and leaders around the world — even from a United Nations panel on combating racial discrimination, which expressed deep concern about “the example this failure could set for the rest of the world.”
The night Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas, unleashing potentially historic rainfall, Trump announced he was pardoning former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who illegally targeted Latinos and was convicted of criminal contempt for violating a court order. In doing so, he bypassed the Department of Justice’s normal pardon procedures. (Trump reportedly asked his attorney general about closing the criminal case against Arpaio months earlier.)
On Sunday, as residents of Texas began evaluating the flooding and damage from the storm, Trump issued a stream of tweets congratulating authorities and himself for the recovery effort, which he bragged was “going well!” The tweets about Hurricane Harvey were sandwiched between posts on unrelated topics, including the president’s personal grievances.
For example, Trump immediately followed the announcement that he would visit Texas with a tweet boasting about his election victory in a different state, while suggesting that he would help unseat the state’s Democratic senator.
Tillerson is not the only administration official attempting to distance himself from the president in recent days.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis can be heard telling U.S. troops in Jordan to “hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other,” in a video posted Thursday on Facebook. Mattis also said the U.S. will “get the power of inspiration back,” which many interpreted as criticism of Trump’s leadership.
It’s unclear exactly when Mattis made the impromptu remarks, though he stopped in Jordan during his overseas trip last week.
“You’re a great example for our country right now, and it has got problems,” Mattis said in the video. “You know it and I know it. It’s got problems we don’t have in the military. And you just hold the line, my fine soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines.”
The president’s economic adviser, Gary Cohn, told the Financial Times that he contemplated resigning after Trump’s Charlottesville remarks, saying the administration “can and must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning these groups.”
Of course, many in the Trump administration still unambiguously defend the president. After Trump delivered a scripted but conspicuously vague speech on his Afghanistan war strategy, Vice President Mike Pence insisted Trump’s primetime address signaled “American resolve.” Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the speech demonstrated “the signs of a president.”
The next day, Trump reverted to form at his no-holds-barred Arizona rally, making it next to impossible to believe that he will treat the presidency with the gravity the office is meant to hold.