Former ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of state, took a tough line on Russian hacking, praised Mexican immigrants and acknowledged the problem posed by global climate change — drawing repeated accolades from Democrats during his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, but setting up some potentially awkward moments with his future boss.
Mr. Tillerson, who spent seven hours testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, faced some uncomfortable moments in an exchange with Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who sharply criticized Russia and pressed the former oil executive to brand Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “war criminal.” Mr. Tillerson, who had extensive dealings with Russia in the private sector and spoke against economic sanctions on Moscow, refused to do so but did condemn suspected interference by the Kremlin in the U.S. election, and said Moscow’s 2014 Crimea annexation was illegal and worthy of a more muscular response from Washington.
With Republicans having just an 11-10 majority on the committee, the failure of Mr. Rubio to back the nominee could make for a more difficult confirmation fight in the full Senate. Asked by reporters if he was ready to back Mr. Tillerson, a noncommittal Mr. Rubio said, “I’m not going to litigate a hearing in the press at this time,” according to Politico.
In an odd confluence of events, at least part of Mr. Tillerson’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee overlapped with Mr. Trump’s first formal press conference as president-elect, during which Mr. Trump denounced the U.S. intelligence community’s probe into Russian hacking and said good personal relations with Mr. Putin would be “an asset” for the United States.
While Mr. Tillerson did not overtly contradict Mr. Trump, his comments had a notably different tenor. He said Washington must be “clear-eyed about our relationship with Russia” and stressed Moscow “does not think like we do.”
“Russia today poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests,” Mr. Tillerson said. “We need an open and frank dialogue with Russia regarding its ambitions so we know how to chart our own course.”
He also praised NATO’s deployment of assets to Baltic states in 2014 to send a message to Mr. Putin that regional meddling beyond Ukraine would not be tolerated, even though Mr. Trump in the past has questioned the value of the NATO alliance.
Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, ranking Democrat on the panel, said Mr. Tillerson’s comments were “very encouraging” to hear, “because it’s not exactly consistent with what Mr. Trump is saying.”
But Mr. Tillerson faced several uncomfortable moments after he told the panel he and his company, “to my knowledge,” had never lobbied the U.S. government over sanctions on Russia, sanctions that were painful to ExxonMobil’s bottom line. Presented with evidence that the company had filed lobbying disclosures, he said the company was not formally lobbying and was asking for more time to remove its interests from Russia if the sanctions went into place — a distinction that left several lawmakers unconvinced.
Issues relating to Russia dominated much of Wednesday’s hearing, but lawmakers also grilled Mr. Tillerson on the full range of foreign policy issues — from Chinese military muscle-flexing and North Korean nuclear provocations to the Islamic State and the Middle East.
The nominee vowed to push for a new era of American leadership, asserting the U.S. is the only superpower capable of shaping the world for good. While he cautioned Washington needs to better understand how and when to flex its muscle, Mr. Tillerson said “diplomacy will not be effective if it’s not backed up by the threat of force.”
On Iran, he said Washington “cannot afford to ignore violations” of the nuclear deal the U.S. and its allies negotiated. “We cannot continue to accept empty promises, like the ones China has made to pressure North Korea to reform, only to shy away from enforcement,” he added. “Looking the other way when trust is broken only encourages more bad behavior, and it must end.”
President-elect Trump has talked of an “America first” economic and diplomatic policy, but Mr. Tillerson called for engagement with the world.
He expressed frustration that “Russia, Syria, Turkey and Iran are dictating the terms of how things are going to play out in Syria today, absent our participation.”
“We have to re-engage with President Erdogan in Turkey,” Mr. Tillerson said. “In the absence of American leadership, he got pretty nervous about his situation and he turned to … Russia.”
Mr. Tillerson was questioned on a number of other matters, although few issues had the edge of the discussions over Russia.
He told Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, that he didn’t agree with Mr. Trump’s blunt campaign trail characterization of many Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. During another exchange, he said he might be open to the creation of a registry of Muslims in the U.S., but voiced apprehension toward Mr. Trump’s call for a ban on all Muslims entering the country.
Acknowledging climate change
One heated issue going into the hearing involved uncertainty over Mr. Tillerson’s views on climate change and the extent to which he hopes to change or renounce the 2015 global Paris Climate Accord. Outgoing Secretary of State John F. Kerry spent years pushing for the agreement and made the battle against climate change a central thrust of his tenure as America’s top diplomat.
Environmental activists — outraged Mr. Trump chose the former head of one of the world’s top fossil fuels companies to replace Mr. Kerry — sought to disrupt Wednesday’s hearing with loud protests.
“Don’t let Exxon take over the State Department!” shouted one woman before police removed her from the hearing room. A smattering of about 100 others snaked around the Dirksen Senate Office Building chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Tillerson must go.”
But the nominee appeared to satisfy Democratic lawmakers by acknowledging that “the risk of climate change does exist” and “the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken.”
While the “type of action seems to be where the largest areas of debate exist,” he said, “it’s important to recognize the U.S. had done a pretty good job.”
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle pressed Mr. Tillerson on how he plans to prevent the profit-driven interests of ExxonMobil, which has projects in more than 50 countries, from influencing his decision-making as secretary of state.
The 64-year-old headed the oil giant from 2006 through last year.
Sen. Tom Udall, New Mexico Democrat, said Australia, Equatorial Guinea, Malaysia, Nigeria, Qatar, Russia and Britain are currently engaged in tax negotiations with Exxon. “If you’re carrying out foreign policy in those countries, how are you going to deal with that situation in terms of contact with Exxon?” he asked.
“Obviously there’s a statutory recusal period, which I will adhere to, on any matters that might come before the State Department that deal directly and specifically with ExxonMobil,” Mr. Tillerson said. “In any instance where there is any question, or even the appearance, I would expect to seek the guidance of counsel from the Office of Ethics in the State Department, and will follow their guidance as to whether it’s an issue that I should recuse myself from.”
Sparks fly with Rubio
Despite Mr. Tillerson’s remarks on Russia, sparks flew when a dogged Mr. Rubio pressed the nominee in the exchange of whether Mr. Putin was a “war criminal.”
Mr. Rubio, who expressed skepticism when President-elect Donald Trump first named the former oil executive to be secretary of state, was being closely watched at the hearing. His tough line of questioning suggested he still had trouble with both Mr. Trump and Mr. Tillerson’s approach to relations with Russia.
The exchange grew tense as Mr. Rubio accused Mr. Tillerson of denying publicly circulated reports about atrocities carried out by Russian military forces in the Syrian city of Aleppo, as well as in Chechnya.
Mr. Tillerson responded that the charges were “very serious” and he “would want to have much more information before reaching that conclusion.”
“I understand there is a body of record in the public domain,” he said. “I’m sure there is a body of record in the classified domain, and I think in order to deal with a serious question like that, I would want to be fully informed.”
Mr. Rubio shot back that “there is so much information out there about what’s happening with Aleppo” and “it is never OK to target civilians, which is what happened there through the Russian military.”
The Florida Republican added that Mr. Tillerson’s response was “discouraging.”
Both sides of the aisle, meanwhile, pressed Mr. Tillerson about close relationships he built with high-level Russian officials during his time at ExxonMobil, and the extent to which those relationships may influence his view of economic sanctions designed to contain Moscow’s meddling in Ukraine.