Donald Trump's pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was grilled on a variety of topics, including nuclear weapons, human rights and climate change during his Senate confirmation hearings today.
He also shared his views on a number of critical regions around the world, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the United States would take a more assertive position overseas than the Obama administration if he is confirmed.
Tillerson may have hit a stumbling block because Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said, after questioning him about human rights violations in a number of countries, was mum about whether he would vote for the former ExxonMobil chief.
Here is a look at what Tillerson had to say about a wide range of topics, starting with Russia:
Most of the questions directed at Tillerson focused on Russia, where, as an oil executive, he’s established deep and decades-long ties with influential leaders, including Vladimir Putin.
At times he voiced firm objections to recent Russian aggression, calling the Putin regime a “danger” to the United States and labeling the annexation of Crimea as “illegal." He called economic sanctions against Russia a “powerful tool” and rejected claims that ExxonMobil lobbied against them during his tenure to advance the company’s financial interests.
He also claimed never to have lobbied against sanctions personally.
Tillerson was critical of the Obama administration’s reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and said the lack of a “proportional response” left open the door to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The “absence of a firm and forceful response to Crimea was judged by Russia to be weak,” Tillerson said. He said that if he were in charge at the time, he would have recommended the United States help Ukraine defend itself by providing it with weapons and intelligence, actions the Obama administrations was reluctant to take.
Tillerson acknowledged that Putin was behind the hacking of the 2016 U.S. election.
But he was reluctant to call him a war criminal for his brutal bombing campaign targeting innocent civilians and hospitals inside anti-rebel held areas of Syria. Asked directly by Rubio whether Russian President Vladimir Putin should be considered a war criminal, Tillerson said, “I would not use that term.”
Tillerson was also reluctant to recognize widely reported claims that Putin orders the killing of his political enemies. “I would have to have more information,” he told Rubio.
And in an apparent break with the president-elect's position during the campaign, Tillerson said he would uphold the mutual defense clause of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which states that an attack against one is an attack against all, whether or not each country had fulfilled its entire financial obligation.
Trump suggested during the campaign he may abandon mutual defense, but President Obama said after the election that Trump was committed to the alliance.
As demonstrators repeatedly interrupted the hearing, Tillerson was asked to address concerns that an incoming Trump administration would withdraw from international commitments to reduce carbon emissions based on a belief that climate change is a myth, as Trump himself has stated.
“I think it's important that the United States maintain its seat at the table on the conversations around how to address threats of climate change, which do require a global response, Tillerson said. “No one country is going to solve this alone.”
But his views on the impact of global warming appear to represent a significant shift from the Obama administration, which strongly advocated government and international climate intervention.
“I came to my personal position over about 20 years as an engineer and a scientist understanding the evolution of the science," he said. "I came to the conclusion a few years ago that the risk of climate change does exist and that the consequences of it could be serious enough that actions should be taken.”
But when asked directly, Tillerson would not say that “human activity” negatively affects the climate. “The increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect, but our ability to predict that effect is very limited,” Tillerson said.
Tillerson said he would recuse himself from any future issues involving ExxonMobil that he might confront as secretary of state, but claimed not to know about one past confrontation between his former company and the U.S. government. Financial documents show that during his leadership at ExxonMobil, the Securities and Exchange Commission raised concerns that the company was doing business via a European subsidiary with three sanctioned countries listed as state sponsors of terrorism. The company’s actions were technically legal.
Nevertheless Tillerson said he doesn’t remember the exchange and deferred to ExxonMobil for comment.
Tillerson said the nation needs to be honest about the threat of radical Islam. “It is with good reason that our fellow citizens have a growing concern about radical Islam and murderous acts committed in its name against Americans and our friends,” Tillerson said.
“Radical Islam poses a grave risk to the stability of nations and the well-being of their citizens. Powerful digital media platforms now allow ISIS, al-Qaida, and other terror groups to spread a poisonous ideology that runs completely counter to the values of the American people and all people around the world who value human life.”
“If confirmed,” Tillerson said, “I will ensure the State Department does its part in supporting Muslims around the world who reject radical Islam in all its forms."
Trump has placed a premium on publicly identifying radical Islamic terrorism as one of the key threats to the United States, whereas the Obama administration has been limited in its public pronouncements.
“When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. Defeating ISIS must be our foremost priority in the Middle East,” Tillerson said.
And according to Tillerson, that means putting the defeat of ISIS before removing Syrian President Bashar Assad. He even questioned whether removing Assad would be ultimately be a prudent decision. The Obama administration has steadily called for the ouster of Assad, claiming there is no political future for Syria as long as he remains in power, but was unwilling to strike Assad’s forces.
“The truth of the matter is carrying both of those out simultaneously is extremely difficult because at times they conflict with one another,” Tillerson said. “The clear priority is defeat ISIS, we defeat ISIS we at least create some level of stability in Syria, which then lets us deal with the next priority which is what is going to be the exit of Bashar Assad.
"But importantly before we decide that is in fact what needs to happen we have to answer the question what comes next? What is going to be the government structure in Syria and can we have any influence in that or not.”
Tillerson told Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), that although well-intentioned, the Iraq War did not enhance U.S. national security interests or serve to further stabilize the Middle East.
IRAN NUCLEAR AGREEMENT
Consistent with Trump, Tillerson recommended a "full review" of President Obama's signature nuclear weapons agreement with Iran. However he at one point incorrectly characterized the agreement, which extends the amount of time it would create for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, by stating "the current agreement does not deny them the ability to purchase a nuclear weapon." In fact, the agreement explicitly denies Iran that right.
Sen. Rubio asked Tillerson about a bill introduced by the last Congress that would remove the travel ban to Cuba by Americans. Tillerson said that Trump has requested all agencies on Day One to do a review of recent executive orders by the Obama administration as they relate to Cuba.
“It would be my expectation that the president would not immediately approve that bill until after that review had occurred because that would be part of a broader view of our posture toward Cuba,” he said.
“If a bill were to pass Congress that would remove the U.S. embargo against Cuba and there hasn't been democratic changes on the island of Cuba, would you advise the president to veto a bill that lifted the embargo on Cuba?” Rubio asked.
“If confirmed, yes I would,” Tillerson replied.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, asked whether or not it is helpful for Americans to be afraid of Muslims. Drawing on his professional experience, Tillerson said “I've traveled extensively in Muslim countries, not just in the Middle East but throughout southeast Asia and have gained appreciation of this great faith and that's why I made a distinction that we should support those Muslim voices that reject this radical Islam that we reject.
"This is part of the winning the war not just on the battlefield but one of our greatest allies in this war is going to be the moderate voices of Muslim, people of the Muslim faith who speak from their perspective and their rejection of that representation of what is otherwise a great faith.”
When asked if there should be a restriction on Muslim travel and immigration.
"I think what's important is that we are able to make a judgment about the people that are coming into the country and so no, I do not support a blanket type rejection of any particular group of people, but clearly, we have serious challenges," Tillerson said.
But he did say he was willing to look into a registry. "I would have to have lot more information on how an approach were even to be constructed," Tillerson said. "If it were a tool for vetting then it probably extends to people as well. Other groups that are threats to the U.S., but that's -- it would just require much more information around how that would even be approached."
Tillerson was asked by Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, if he agreed with Trump’s controversial comment at the start of his presidential campaign where he declared that some Mexican immigrants were “rapists” bringing “drugs” and “crime” across the southern border.
“I would never characterize an entire population of people with any single term at all,” Tillerson replied. Tillerson promised to engage with Mexico, citing the country’s importance to the hemisphere and shared issues of concern with the U.S. “Mexico is a longstanding neighbor and friend of this country,” Tillerson said.
SOUTH CHINA SEA
Tillerson took a firm stance on China's military expansion of the remote Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, calling it "illegal" and "without regard for international norms." He also said it was akin to Russia's taking of Crimea.
Asked by Senator Rubio if the U.S. would use military force to stop China in the event that the communist nation tried to assume ownership of the Senkaku Island chain in the East China Sea, Tillerson said the U.S. has made commitments to defending Japan, which claims ownership of those islands.
Sen. Rubio also pressed Tillerson about Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug campaign that, according to multiple press reports, has resulted in thousands of extrajudicial deaths carried out by hit squads.
Duterte has recently spoken ill of President Obama and thrown support behind Trump. “My question is 6,200 people killed, do you believe that's an appropriate way to conduct the operation or something that's conducive to human rights violations that we should be concerned about?” Rubio asked.
Tillerson said he “would want to understand the greater detail,” before answering.
Ely Brown and Elizabeth McLaughlin contributed to this report.