Tillerson warns military grads of 'growing crisis in ethics and integrity'

Former Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonTina Fey returns to ‘Saturday Night Live’ as Sarah Palin with advice for Trump staffers Trump nominates Pacific Command head as ambassador to South Korea Trump’s offer could be just what Pyongyang was seeking MORE delivered a stark warning on Wednesday of "a growing crisis in ethics and integrity" in American democracy, saying that a failure to confront that dilemma will usher the U.S. into its "twilight years."

In a commencement address at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., Tillerson said that Americans had a responsibility to confront leaders who mislead the public or promote "realities that are no longer grounded in facts."

"If our leaders seek to conceal the truth or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom," he said.

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Instead, Americans should seek a fact-based society, rather than one "based on wishful thinking ... [and] hoped-for outcomes made in shallow promises," Tillerson said. 

"If we do not as Americans confront the crisis of ethics and integrity in our society and among our leaders in both the public and private sector — and regrettably at times even the nonprofit sector — then American democracy as we know it is entering its twilight years," he said.

At no point in his speech did Tillerson mention President TrumpDonald John TrumpWH aides intentionally compose Trump tweets with grammatical mistakes: report Holder: DOJ, FBI should reject Trump's requests Ex-Trump campaign adviser rips claims of spy in campaign: It's 'embarrassing' MORE or his administration by name. But the former top diplomat's remarks, at times, appeared laser-focused on the president.

Tillerson was unceremoniously fired in March, when Trump tweeted that he planned to nominate then-CIA Director Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Pompeo lays out new Iran terms | Pentagon hints at more aggressive posture against Iran | House, Senate move on defense bill Overnight Finance: Trump signs repeal of auto-loan policy | Justices uphold contracts that bar employee class-action suits | US, China trade war 'on hold' Mike Pompeo raises the bar for a deal with Iran  MORE as his new secretary of State. Tillerson, who had returned from an official trip to Africa hours earlier, was reportedly caught off guard by his dismissal.

He formally terminated his commission as secretary on March 31

Tillerson cautioned that the U.S. must not take its longtime "allies for granted," but should instead seek to resolve differences, "both in trade relations and national security matters." 

He also appeared to offer a defense of globalization and international trade — something that Trump has railed against. Tillerson acknowledged that, in the U.S., globalization has "led to anxiety and fear about growth in foreign markets and about the global movement of jobs."

"We must acknowledge, however, that every nation has the right to aspire to a better quality of life, and that free trade and economic growth are the means by which economic opportunity is created for all people," he said, in what appeared to be a veiled rebuke of Trump's "America first" approach to foreign policy and international trade. 

Tillerson also spoke about the need to seek out truth and confront false information, arguing that failing to do so would erode American democracy and transform the U.S. into a more repressive society, similar to the likes of "Russia, China, Iran, North Korea."

"We do not have to look far to find examples of the cost to individuals and to society when integrity is sacrificed for immediate gain or personal achievement," he said.

"Such damage strikes at the very heart of a free society. It undermines the public trust in institutions and the overwhelming number of individuals, organizations who do live and compete by the rules every day."