Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a news conference in Cairo, Egypt, on Feb. 12, 2018. Tillerson warned Wednesday that "going wobbly" on truth endangers American democracy. Credit: Xinhua | TNS

Former secretary of state Rex Tillerson warned Wednesday that deceptive leaders and “alternative realities” are a threat to democracy, an implicit critique of his former boss, President Donald Trump.

In his first major address since leaving Washington after he was fired in March, Tillerson told graduates at the Virginia Military Institute to remember the importance of integrity and honesty. He never mentioned Trump by name, but his meaning was clear.

“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,” Tillerson said.

Truth, he said, is the “central tenet of a free society.”

“It is truth that says to our adversaries, ‘We say what we mean, and we mean what we say,’” Tillerson said.

Trump frequently distorts the truth, including about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, which the president calls a “witch hunt.” He often refers to unflattering news coverage as “fake news,” a term that has been adopted by authoritarian and other populist leaders.

Tillerson did not give examples of the lack of truth. He had adopted a tougher public line on Russia than Trump.

“When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth — even on what may seem the most trivial of matters — we go wobbly on America,” Tillerson said.

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

Tillerson had a troubled and at times distant relationship with Trump, who cut his first secretary of state out of some key decisions. The former ExxonMobil chief executive, who did not know Trump before interviewing for the job, was overruled by the president on several major policy issues, including the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and the intent, clear long before Tillerson was fired, to leave the Iran nuclear deal. Trump pulled out of the deal last week, with support from his new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.

Tillerson’s successor hosted his first town hall with employees at the State Department on Wednesday.

The event was closed to the media, but two people in the room told The Washington Post that Pompeo revived his mantra that he wants to bring the State Department’s “swagger back,” a subtle dig at the low morale reported by employees during Tillerson’s tenure. In just a few weeks on the job, Pompeo has already reversed two heavily criticized Tillerson directives, ending a 16-month hiring freeze and reinstating a program that offers employment opportunities for the spouses of diplomats posted abroad.

During the question-and-answer portion, Pompeo addressed a range of inquiries from employees, including one about the strength of the U.S. response to Russian aggression. Pompeo said the United States needs to do more to combat Moscow, said an individual in the room.

The State Department published excerpts of Pompeo’s prepared remarks but did not allow access to the event for reporters.

VMI, a military college in Lexington, Virginia, had invited Tillerson to speak some months before he was fired via a presidential tweet. Tillerson said the VMI honor code helps students understand that “without personal honor, there is no leadership.”

“But a warning to you as you leave this place — a place where the person sitting on either side of you shares that understanding,” Tillerson said. “You will now enter a world where, sadly, that is not always the case. And your commitment to this high standard of ethical behavior and integrity will be tested.”

Tillerson appeared to say that his own integrity is intact, even as he made joking reference to what was widely seen as his humiliating treatment by Trump. Among the aphorisms he offered the graduates were these:

“Blessed is the man who can see you make a fool of yourself and doesn’t think you’ve done a permanent job. Blessed is the man who does not try to blame all of his failures on someone else. Blessed is the man that can say that the boy he was would be proud of the man he is.”

The Washington Post’s John Hudson contributed to this report.