Tillerson was asked on “Fox News Sunday” whether he thought Trump was expressing American values of tolerance and equality in his handling of racially tinged violence during a white-supremacist march in Charlottesville earlier this month.
“The president speaks for himself,” he said.
When host Chris Wallace then asked whether Tillerson was “separating himself” from Trump’s remarks, Tillerson answered, “I’ve made my own comments as to our values.”
That was a reference to remarks Tillerson made Aug. 18 about inclusiveness and tolerance in a discussion of racial diversity and American values. His remarks were read as implicit criticism of Trump and his assertion that “both sides” were to blame for violence that killed a woman who was protesting the white-supremacist rally.
Tillerson’s remarks followed harsh criticism of Trump from National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, who said in an interview Friday that he nearly quit over the president’s handling of the events in Charlottesville.
“Citizens standing up for equality and freedom can never be equated with white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the KKK,” Cohn said in the Financial Times interview.
Cohn, who is Jewish, said that the administration “must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning these groups.”
Trump has condemned hate groups in the wake of Charlottesville but twice added equivocation about blame for violence and once said some “fine people” were among the white-supremacist marchers.
At a campaign rally before a largely white crowd on Tuesday in Phoenix, Trump decried the removal of Confederate statues — the flash point in Charlottesville — and blamed the news media for “trying to take away our history and our heritage.”
Tillerson had told a group of State Department interns on Aug. 18 that “we do not honor, nor do we promote or accept, hate speech in any form.”
Tillerson did not invoke Trump or levy direct criticism then, but his discussion of “hate speech” just days after the Charlottesville rally made his meaning clear.
“Those who embrace it poison our public discourse, and they damage the very country that they claim to love,” Tillerson had said.
On Sunday, Tillerson rejected criticism from a United Nations committee last week that the Trump administration had failed in its response to Charlottesville and set a poor example for the rest of the world.
“We express America’s values from the State Department — our commitment to freedom, our commitment to equal treatment of people the world over,” Tillerson said in the Fox interview, “and that message has never changed.”
The leaders of Britain and Germany had previously said in response to Charlottesville that violence and bigotry must always be condemned.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis expressed implicit criticism of Trump last week in impromptu remarks to U.S. troops captured on video.
Mattis says the country has “problems,” and asks those in uniform to “hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it.”
Mattis has not commented on the video, which was apparently recorded as he addressed troops in Jordan.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has defended Trump’s remarks, but most other top aides have not directly addressed the controversy. Trump was privately furious about Cohn’s rebuke, The Washington Post reported, but the president has not commented publicly on his aide’s remarks.
Trump highly prizes personal loyalty and had earlier sharply criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions for actions in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election that Trump saw as disloyal.
It is not clear whether Tillerson has raised his concerns directly with Trump, although the two speak frequently and Tillerson met with Trump last week at the White House. Tillerson has not addressed whether he considered resigning over Trump’s remarks.
Tillerson participated in Trump’s video Cabinet meeting about flooding from Hurricane Harvey shortly after the television interview.
In that interview, Tillerson also addressed the departure Friday of former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka, who had criticized Tillerson as one of the “globalists” thwarting Trump’s “America First” agenda.
Wallace quoted from Gorka’s resignation letter, which said that “a crucial element of the presidential campaign has been lost” because Trump’s speech laying out his policy for Afghanistan did not mention “radical Islamic terrorism.”
“I think he’s completely wrong,” Tillerson said. “I think it shows a lack of understanding of the president’s broader policy when it comes to protecting Americans at home and abroad from all acts of terrorism.”
Tillerson, a former Exxon Mobil chief executive with no prior government experience, has expressed mainstream Republican views on many foreign policy issues and has lost some internal policy battles such as whether to remain a party to the landmark Paris climate accord.
“I don’t see any division,” between Trump’s nationalist advisers and his more mainstream aides, Tillerson said Sunday.
He added: “I think it’s a question of tactics and how you achieve those objectives. I think the president has been clear in his speech in Afghanistan that we are not undertaking nation-building,” as Gorka and others have charged.
On North Korea, Tillerson said the nation’s missile tests don’t necessarily mean that Kim Jong Un’s regime is thumbing its nose at the offer of negotiations with the United States.