Tillerson calls for unity as he takes helm at State Department
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for understanding on his first day at the State Department amid internal dissent over policies of President Donald Trump, which have also antagonized a range of allies.

Hundreds of State Department officials greeted the former Exxon Mobil Corp chairman with applause as he entered the building. Loud cheers broke out when Tillerson thanked Acting Secretary of State Tom Shannon for standing in after the departure of John Kerry.

"My first day is here. I'm on the job," said Tillerson, who was sworn in on Wednesday, adding: "Hi, I'm the new guy."

The Senate confirmed Tillerson to his post on Wednesday despite concerns about his ties to Russia and questions over whether he would wield enough influence as Trump's main foreign policy adviser. Trump has called for closer ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In remarks that did not go into foreign policy specifics, Tillerson addressed the dissent within the department that emerged in a memo signed by more than 900 officials in protest against Trump's decision to suspend the U.S. refugee program and restrict most travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries.

"One of the great challenges and thrills for the State Department staff is deciding how to confront changing conditions in every corner of the world," said Tillerson, "I encourage all of you to use your natural and well developed skills to adapt to changes here at home as well.

"I know this was a hotly contested election and we do not all feel the same way about the outcome, each of us is entitled to expression of our political beliefs, but we cannot let our personal convictions overwhelm our ability to work as one team," said Tillerson.

He added: "Each of us is entitled to the expression of our political beliefs, but we cannot let our personal convictions overwhelm our ability to work as one team."

He also signaled he was likely to impose changes to improve the functioning of the department but did not elaborate.

In his first meeting with a foreign counterpart, Tillerson met German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel at the State Department. He had been scheduled to meet with Jordan's King Abdullah but the meeting was postponed after the two met earlier at the National Prayer Breakfast attended by Trump, according to U.S. officials.

Tillerson inherits a messy globe with war in Syria and Iraq, nuclear-armed North Korea threatening to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile, and increased violence in eastern Ukraine.

Over the past 48 hours more foreign policy challenges piled up as tensions erupted between the U.S. and ally Australia over an existing refugee swap, which Trump called a "dumb deal."

Strains with Iran also escalated after the White House said it was putting Tehran on notice for test-firing a ballistic missile and the new administration in Washington moved to impose sanctions on multiple Iranian entities on Friday, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Tillerson also takes over at a time of worsening ties with Mexico after Trump vowed to build a wall between the two countries and reexamine the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) deal with Mexico and Canada.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; editing by Yara Bayoumy, Tom Brown and Bernard Orr)