Washington (CNN)New US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson introduced himself to the department Thursday at his first day on the job, urging unity as he acknowledged the lingering strains of the divisive campaign and paid respects to the agency's career men and women.
Tillerson takes helm at State, notes divisive election
"I know this was a hotly contested election, and we do not all feel the same way about the outcome," the former ExxonMobil CEO said, "but we cannot let our personal convictions overwhelm our ability to work as one team."
Tillerson started out with a sly joke, apologizing for arriving almost 30 minutes late because he'd been attending a prayer breakfast led by President Donald Trump.
"It seemed at this year's prayer breakfast, people felt the need to pray a little longer," he deadpanned, triggering laughter throughout the jam-packed department lobby where new secretaries traditionally greet the staff on their first day.
In the leadup to Tillerson's confirmation Wednesday, the White House had struck out at State Department employees, over 900 of whom had signed a formal protest about the President's travel ban, arguing that it would make the US less safe. The policy's chaotic rollout meant that State, which oversees visa issuance, wasn't informed about or prepared for its launch.
The so-called dissent cable -- a traditional way for diplomats to register concern about a policy without fear of retribution -- drew a sharp response from White House press secretary Sean Spicer earlier this week. He suggested that those who didn't like the policy "can get with the program or they can go."
Tillerson struck a starkly different note that seemed to signal he wants to position himself as the agency's man in the White House, not the White House's man at State.
"I am honored to be serving alongside each of you," Tillerson said.
"The individuals who comprise this department are among the finest public servants in the world," the 64-year-old Texan continued. "State Department staffers in the field are not just conduits for policies and plans, you are our emissaries of our nation and the ideals we stand for. When people see you, they see America."
In meetings with officials before taking office, Tillerson made clear he wants a wide range of opinions -- not just from the top-level management, but working-level experts, according to department staffers who spoke on condition of anonymity.
On Thursday, he suggested that disagreement is fine, but the agency must function as one.
"Each of us is entitled to the expression of our political beliefs, but we cannot let our personal convictions overwhelm our ability to work as one team," Tillerson said. "Let us be understanding with each other about the times we live in as we focus our energies on our departmental goals."
Tillerson faced a rocky confirmation hearing last month after lawmakers on both sides of the aisle voiced concern about his approach to human rights and state sponsors of terror, such as Iran, Syria and Sudan, while he was Exxon CEO. His remarks at the State Department seemed designed to try to reassure professionals in the building.
Staff inside the department said the great hope -- and question -- is whether Tillerson will be empowered by the White House and be a forceful advocate for the department. There is a lot of anxiety among career diplomats and civil servants about the way the State Department was cut out of the loop throughout the drafting, roll out and messaging of the travel ban.
There's also concern the White House will conduct a very insular foreign policy that continues to ignore the agencies. The hope is that Tillerson will form an alliance with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Homeland Secretary John Kelly in an effort to influence White House policy.
Tillerson is also expected to bring a CEO mentality to the job and while there isn't necessarily excitement about his arrival, there is optimism that the chaos will subside. He struck a decidedly CEO-like tone at one point, saying he would be looking to reform the agency to make it more efficient.
And in contrast to the President's recent visit to the CIA, Tillerson paid careful tribute to staff who have died in the line of duty. Trump had prompted anger for remarks he made at the CIA in January standing before a wall that memorializes fallen agents, because many felt he hadn't paid sufficient respect to those who had given their lives in the line of duty.
Tillerson closed his remarks by noting that in the crowded lobby is a wall inscribed with the names of fallen foreign service officers "who in the words of Abraham Lincoln gave their last full measure of devotion." As the new administration begins, Tillerson said. "It is important to honor the sacrifices of those who came before us and reflect on the legacy we inherit."
Once the applause died down, Tillerson and his wife walked to the wall, placed flowers at its base, and then the new secretary of state ran his hand along the names cut into the stone.