This is pretty extraordinary, as the startled reaction from Chris Wallace demonstrates.
In an interview aired Sunday morning on Fox, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson draws a sharp distinction between the values of the American people and the American government on one hand, and the values expressed by his boss, President Trump, on the other hand.
WALLACE: Does that make it harder for you to push American values around the world, when some foreign leaders question the president’s values?
TILLERSON: Chris, we express America’s values from the State Department. We represent the American people, we represent America’s values, our commitment to freedom, our commitment to equal treatment of people the world over, and that message has never changed.
WALLACE: And when the president gets into the kind of controversy he does and the UN committee responds the way it does, it seems to say, they begin to doubt our — whether we’re living those values.
TILLERSON: I don’t believe anyone doubts the American people’s values, or the commitment of the American government, or the government’s agencies to advancing those values and to defending those values.
WALLACE: And the president’s values?
TILLERSON: The president speaks for himself, Chris.
Gary Cohn, the president’s top economics adviser, took a similar course in an interview with the Financial Times earlier this week. After days in which Cohn had been quoted second-hand about how disgusted and appalled he had been by Trump’s behavior, and how close he had come to resigning, he chose to take that sentiment public.
“This administration can and must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning these groups and do everything we can to heal the deep divisions that exist in our communities,” Cohn said, acknowledging the difficulty it has caused for him and others at top levels in the Trump administration. “This is a personal issue for each of us. We are all grappling with it. This takes time to grapple with.”
“As a patriotic American, I am reluctant to leave my post…,” he said. “But I also feel compelled to voice my distress over the events of the last two weeks … As a Jewish American, I will not allow neo-Nazis ranting ‘Jews will not replace us’ to cause this Jew to leave his job. I feel deep empathy for all who have been targeted by these hate groups. We must all unite together against them.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, speaking to U.S. service personnel in Jordan this week, also made his sentiments clear.
“You’re a great example for our country right now,” Mattis says, beginning at about the 1:30 mark. “It’s got some problems right now, I know it and you know it. It’s got some problems that we don’t have in the military. You just hold the line, my fine young soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines. Just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it, being friendly to one another. It’s what Americans owe to one another.”
Mattis, Cohn and Tillerson were people of accomplishment and reputation before they joined the Trump administration, and they hope to leave it the same way. They also don’t come out of the political world; they have never run for office and never will, so they have no need to try to placate the Trump base. And if the price of their candor is Trump’s disfavor, they are willing to pay that price.
It really is all falling apart.