In veiled shot at Trump, Tillerson warns democracy at risk

FILE - In this March 6, 2018, file photo, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks about the relationship between the U.S. and countries in Africa, at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took a veiled shot at President Donald Trump on Wednesday, warning that a growing national crisis of ethics and integrity has put American democracy at risk. In remarks to graduates of the Virginia Military Institute, Tillerson lamented assaults on facts that he said would lead to a loss of freedom if not countered. And he said that only societies able to pursue the truth and challenge alternate realities can be truly free. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

WASHINGTON — Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took a veiled shot at President Donald Trump on Wednesday, warning that a growing national crisis of ethics and integrity has put American democracy at risk.

In remarks to graduates of the Virginia Military Institute, Tillerson lamented assaults on facts that he said would lead to a loss of freedom if not countered. And he said that only societies able to pursue the truth and challenge alternate realities can be truly free.

"When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth, even on what may seem to be the most trivial of matters, we go wobbly on America," Tillerson said. "If we do not as Americans confront the crisis of ethics and integrity in our society among our leaders in both public and private sector, and regrettably at times in the nonprofit sector, then American democracy as we know it is entering its twilight years."

Tillerson did not mention his former boss by name Wednesday but alluded to some policies of the Trump administration by decrying those who neglect or ignore long-standing allies or deny that free trade is an engine of global growth.

"We must never take these long-held allies for granted," he said, in apparent reference to Trump overruling the advice of his former top diplomat and others and withdrawing from some international agreements, threatening import tariffs.

On free trade, which Trump has questioned, Tillerson noted that much of the developed world saw it as a net positive. "But many here at home still have a way to go to fully embrace the global economy and to recognize that with these changes come both challenges and opportunities," he said.

Tillerson was asked to be VMI's commencement speaker before Trump fired him by tweet in mid-March after months of tension between the men over policies including climate change, trade, the Middle East and North Korea. Trump later explained that he didn't see eye to eye with Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO, and had more in common with CIA chief Mike Pompeo, who took over as secretary of state.

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