Rex Tillerson, the outgoing secretary of state, gave his last official State Department press briefing room statement Tuesday, announcing he would relinquish his duties at midnight and formally depart on March 31.
Tillerson stressed his desire for an “orderly and smooth transition” in his roughly ten-minute address. He explained that Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan will take over his front-line duties at midnight Wednesday, presumably until the Senate confirms Trump’s pick to replace Tillerson: CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
Crucially, Tillerson claimed he has instructed the entire State Department leadership, Senate-confirmed and acting, to “remain at their post,” likely ruling out a broader State Department shakeup in the short-term.
President Trump announced Tillerson’s dismissal via Twitter Monday morning, later suggesting disagreements on the Iran nuclear deal and policy more generally as a motive. Though often fraught with tension with the White House, Tillerson’s 14-month tenure as America’s top diplomat was an active one, featuring frequent foreign tours.
As he did in his post, Tillerson devoted an important part of his speech to America’s rising rival across the Pacific. “Much work remains to establish a clear view of the nature of our future relationship with China,” he told the assembled reporters.
“How should we deal with one another over the next 50 years and ensure a period of prosperity for all of our peoples, free of conflict between two very powerful nations?” Tillerson asked rhetorically.
Tillerson cited the “DPRK maximum pressure campaign” as a major success, claiming an “end of the era of ‘strategic patience’” allowed the U.S. and allies to isolate North Korea and ratchet up sanctions on the communist dictatorship. He also touted the “South Asia strategy” for solidifying the alliance against the Taliban and forcing the Islamist group to the negotiating table in Afghanistan.
The outgoing secretary of state had a few stern words on Russia as well, making oblique reference to the emerging picture of the means by which the country sought to influence American politics. “Troubling behavior and actions on the part of the Russian government … Russia must assess carefully as to how its actions are in the best interest of the Russian people,” he warned.
Tillerson thanked the foreign service officers he led for 14 months, calling them “selfless leaders.” He left all his subordinates with the admonition, “Much remains to be done to achieve our mission on behalf of the American people with allies and with partners.”
“I’ll now return to private life as a private citizen, as a proud American, proud of the opportunity I’ve had to serve my country. God bless all of you. God bless the American people. God bless America,” the former Exxon-Mobil CEO concluded, exiting stage right from the briefing room and from the top diplomatic position in the free world.