WASHINGTON • US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has defended American values after a United Nations panel criticised the official response to racist violence in the country - but he conspicuously declined to speak for President Donald Trump.
Mr Tillerson, asked on Fox News Sunday whether Mr Trump's stance had made it harder for the United States' top diplomat to promote American 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.
Mr 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.
Mr Trump's response was celebrated in white nationalist circles but drew harsh criticism across the US political spectrum, including a particularly sharp rebuke on Sunday from former vice-president Joe Biden, who said Mr Trump's "willingness to divide this nation knows no bounds".
Mr Tillerson told Fox: "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."
Fox interviewer Chris Wallace then gave him another chance to defend Mr Trump, asking: "And the President's values?"
"The President speaks for himself, Chris," Mr Tillerson replied.
"Are you separating yourself from that, Sir?" Mr Wallace persisted.
To which Mr Tillerson replied: "I gave my own comments on our values as well in the speech I gave at the State Department last week."
Mr Biden, writing in Atlantic magazine, said Mr 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".