Trump triggered outrage earlier this month when he suggested both sides were at fault after unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a woman was killed when a white supremacist drove his car into a group of counter-protesters.
The president went on to say there were “very fine people” on “both sides” of the protest, which began when torch-bearing young men in neo-Nazi regalia gathered to protect a statue of a Confederate general.
Trump’s response was celebrated in white nationalist circles but drew harsh criticism from around the world and across the US political spectrum, including a particularly sharp rebuke on Sunday from former vice president Joe Biden, who said Trump’s “willingness to divide this nation knows no bounds.”
Tillerson, asked on Fox News Sunday whether Trump’s stance had made it harder for Washington’s top diplomat to promote US values around the world, spoke for his State Department.
“We represent the American people, their commitment to freedom and to equal treatment to people the world over, and that message has never changed,” he said.
Pressed on whether Trump had undermined that message, Tillerson said: “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 defending those values.”
Interviewer Chris Wallace then gave him another chance to defend Trump, asking: “And the president’s values?”
“The president speaks for himself, Chris,” Tillerson replied.
“Are you separating yourself from that, sir?” Wallace persisted.
To which Tillerson replied: “I gave my own comments on our values as well in the speech I gave at the State Department last week.”
Biden, writing in Atlantic magazine, said Trump’s comments after Charlottesville had made things clear: “We are living through a battle for the soul of this nation.”
Progress in civil and human rights, he wrote, was “being met by a ferocious pushback from the oldest and darkest forces in America,” which were working to “prop up the immigrant as the source of all our troubles” and to prey on hopelessness in “hollowed-out cities and towns.”
Today, Biden said, “we have an American president who has publicly proclaimed a moral equivalency between neo-Nazis and Klansmen and those who would oppose their venom and hate,” and who had thereby “emboldened white supremacists.”
He implored all Americans to “do what our president has not” and to “uphold America’s values.”