By Michael Hernandez
President Donald Trump's first secretary of state took a veiled jab at his former boss Wednesday, telling graduates of the Virginia Military Institute to vigilantly defend the truth.
"As I reflect upon the state of our American democracy, I observe a growing crisis in ethics and integrity," Tillerson said in remarks at the institute's commencement ceremony. "When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth, even on what may seem the most trivial of matters, we go wobbly on America."
"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 non-profit sector, then American democracy as we know is in its twilight years," he added.
Tillerson was abruptly fired by Trump via Twitter in March with the White House claiming the former top diplomat had been informed beforehand of the president's decision. The White House narrative was later contradicted by a since-ousted State Department spokesman, setting off a flurry of confusion about the actual chain of events.
Tillerson did not explicitly mention Trump by name during his address Wednesday but warned against accepting "alternative realities" unhinged from the truth -- a possible allusion to the "alternative facts" the White House proposed after Trump lied about crowd sizes at his inauguration.
He further took aim at some key Trump administration policies including its opposition to free trade, saying it "and economic growth are the means by which opportunity is created for all people" after Trump scrapped U.S. participation in a Pacific free trade pact and ordered the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Trump and Tillerson had a tumultuous relationship, with the former ExxonMobil CEO counselling Trump against following through on some of his more controversial policy decisions, including pulling out of the Iran deal.
Trump replaced Tillerson with former CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who is markedly more hawkish than Tillerson, particularly on Iran.