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Senators pressed Rex Tillerson Wednesday over his ties to Russia and to Exxon. But their greater concern seemed to be over whether President-elect Donald Trump would actually undermine the former ExxonMobil CEO he nominated to be his secretary of state.
Would Trump’s unpredictability — and tendency to veer wildly between different positions, and to communicate without warning or discipline on Twitter — allow Tillerson to do his job of representing the United States in meetings with foreign leaders? Would Trump even explain his policies to top officials like his secretary of state, or simply broadcast it in hard-to-interpret fragments as he has done so far? Would foreign governments have more information about Trump’s business dealings and vulnerabilities than his own top negotiators?
These and other questions surfaced repeatedly during the more than seven hours of testimony during Tillerson’s confirmation hearing.
“We’ve had this election where many things have been said and sometimes in unorthodox ways,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said at the beginning of the hearing. “”Not just do world leaders not know where we are … but our body politic here does not know.”
Corker expressed hope, but some doubt, that Tillerson would be able to “translate” Trump’s many pronouncements “into a foreign policy that benefits U.S. national interest.”
The clearest expression of lawmaker anxiety about Trump came when freshman Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., a former U.S. Marine captain, asked Tillerson a series of questions about Trump’s penchant for haphazardly using Twitter. Since the November election, Trump has had a series of freewheeling tweets about national security and other topics, including some posts downplaying alleged Russian interference in the U.S. election.
“Some of the president-elect’s tweets appear to be quickly drafted, not vetted by staff or coordinated with the transition team senior officials. So this gives pause to me,” Young said. “This gives some concern that in the coming months, in the coming years, you might not be empowered to actually serve as chief diplomat. You would lack credibility. So, how do you finesse this? How would you ensure that your legs are not cut out from underneath you?”
Tillerson indicated that he understood Young’s concern but did not offer much to assuage it.
“I understand your point. I’m overseas and it would be my expectation that any way the president might choose to communicate would be supportive of that policy that we’ve agreed on,” Tillerson said.
Young was obviously not satisfied with the answer.
“Do you have in mind any contingency plans?” Young asked him.
“Yes, I have his cellphone number,” Tillerson said. Quiet, nervous laughter rippled through the audience seated behind Tillerson in the Dirksen Senate Office hearing room. After a pause, Tillerson added: “And he’s promised he will answer.”
Young sounded somewhat incredulous at Tillerson’s answers: “We’ll hope for the best there unless you have anything else to add.”
A few moments later, an exchange with Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., illustrated another example of how Trump’s inclination to say whatever comes into his mind on Twitter will create confusion if he continues to do so as commander-in-chief.
Murphy read Trump’s Jan. 2 tweet in which the president-elect said, “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!”
“That sounds like a red line,” Murphy said.
Tillerson responded that it was hard to know what exactly Trump’s tweet meant. “I don’t know that I would interpret that to be a red line. I could interpret that to be a lot of things,” he said.
But Tillerson told Young that there was probably not much he could do to stop Trump from tweeting. “I don’t think I will be telling the boss how he ought to communicate with the American people,” Tillerson said. “That’s going to be his choice.”
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., was also aghast that Tillerson had not discussed Russia with Trump. “That has not occurred yet,” Tillerson said.
“Pretty amazing,” Menendez said.
Tillerson did in fact break with Trump on his stance toward Russia, taking a far more aggressive and confrontational stance than his would-be boss. The veteran oilman, who received a 2013 Order of Friendship award from Russia, described Moscow as an “adversary,” agreed that Russia interfered in the most recent presidential election and tried to undermine U.S. democracy and said clearly that Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was an illegal act.
His comments stood in stark contrast to the president-elect’s past statements. Last August, he said he would consider recognizing Russia’s action in Crimea as legitimate. “I’m going to take a look at it,” Trump said. “The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.”
Tillerson was adamantly opposed to recognizing the peninsula as Russian land. “That was a taking of territory that was not theirs,” he told Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. And he said that he would have recommended that the U.S. provide “defensive weapons” and “air surveillance” to the Ukrainians on their eastern border.
He also argued that Russia massed troops on Ukraine’s eastern border and has continued to antagonize its neighbor because the U.S.-led response involved only sanctions. “The absence of a very firm, forceful response … was judged by leadership in Russia as a very weak response,” Tillerson said. “What Russian leadership would have understood was a powerful response. … It required a proportional show of force to indicate to Russia that there will be no more taking of territories.”
Tillerson was completely committed to upholding U.S. commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which also bears big implications for the U.S.-Russia relationship. Trump has questioned the U.S. commitment to the organization, complaining that other nations do not contribute enough financially.
In contrast, Tillerson said, “The Article 5 commitment is inviolable, and the U.S. is going to stand behind that commitment.”
He also explicitly contradicted Trump’s past statements about nuclear proliferation. Trump said last year that “I’m not sure it would be a bad thing” if Japan obtained nuclear weapons, and made similar comments about South Korea and Saudi Arabia.
“Do you agree or disagree?” Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., asked Tillerson.
“I do not agree,” he replied.
And on China, Tillerson poured cold water on the idea that the U.S. might change its decades-long policy of not recognizing Taiwan as an independent country. Trump raised that possibility by calling the president of Taiwan in early December.
“I don’t know of any plans to alter the ‘one China’ position,” Tillerson said, referring to the decades-old U.S. approach to the island.
On the question of fighting terrorism, Tillerson said that the U.S. has to “win the war of ideas.”
“One of our greatest allies in this war is going to be the voices of moderate Muslims, the people of the Muslim faith who speak from their perspective and their rejection of that representation of what is otherwise a great faith,” Tillerson said.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., later thanked Tillerson for describing Islam as a “great faith.” But he expressed concern about Trump’s rhetoric toward Muslims.
Tillerson’s weakest moments came when he was questioned about human rights. Sen. Marco Rubio pressed him to label Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal,” as well as about the human rights abuses by the governments in Saudi Arabia and the Philippines. Other senators, like Murphy and others, continued this line of questioning and were nonplussed at Tillerson’s refusal to agree with them.
Tillerson was clearly trying to avoid antagonizing governments he may not have met yet, at least as a representative of the U.S. government, and was at pains to explain himself.
“Our interests are not different, senator,” he said to Rubio, whose questions were some of the most hostile in tone of the day. “There seems to be some misunderstanding that somehow I see the world through a different lens. I do not.”
But, he said, “These are centuries-long cultures. … It doesn’t mean we can’t affect them to change. While the pace has been slow, slower than we would like, there is a change under way in Saudi Arabia. What I wouldn’t want to do is to take some kind of precipitous action that suddenly causes the leadership of Saudi Arabia to interrupt that. I’d like to have them continue to make that progress.”
It was one of the few times during the long hearing that Tillerson seemed to extend himself to try to get a point across. Most of the day he was cordial and responsive, but within limits. In his soft, deep Texan drawl, the 64-year-old former oil executive answered most questions ably but did at times become nonresponsive.
In particular, he went into bunker mode when Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., asked Tillerson whether he knew of “financial connections between President-elect Trump, the Trump family or Trump organizations and Russian individuals or organizations or the Russian government.”
“I have no knowledge,” he said in answer to that question, and repeated those words verbatim twice more.
When asked whether Exxon had concealed what it knew about climate change, or about its lobbying efforts against sanctions on Russia, Tillerson also refused to answer, repeatedly saying that the senators should ask Exxon about those issues.
“Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question, or are you refusing to do so?” Kaine said.
“A little of both,” Tillerson said, in a casual folksy tone, sparking laughter in the room.
But by the end of the day, even Democratic senators made comments indicating they expected Tillerson to be confirmed.
“Thank you for your fortitude and patience,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said as the hearing passed into its eighth hour. “It bodes well for what I think are the demands of service as secretary of state.”
But Coons also raised the concern that Trump would not tolerate Tillerson’s independence.
“You have a notable difference of view from at least some of the concerns based on some campaign statements by the president-elect: no ban on Muslims, no nuclear arms race, no nukes for Japan, South Korea or Saudi Arabia, no abandoning our NATO allies, no deal with Russia to accept the annexation of Crimea, stay engaged potentially in both the Iran agreement and Paris climate treaty. All of these to me are quite encouraging, but they suggest some tension with the president-elect,” Coons said.
“Just reassure me that you will stand up to the president when you disagree,” Coons added.
Tillerson did his best. “In my conversations with him … he’s been very open and inviting of hearing my views, and respectful of those views,” Tillerson said. “My sense is we’re going to have all these things on the table and everyone will be given an opportunity to express those and make their case, and then the president will decide.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., also wondered aloud whether Tillerson’s views would win the day in the Trump administration.
“What I want to know is which values are going to prevail,” she said.
It was Rubio who articulated some of the deepest reservations about Tillerson, arguing that America’s interests have been hindered in the past when it made its concern for democracy and human rights contingent on whether other countries could provide something in return.
“That cannot be who we are in the 21st century,” Rubio said.
Corker ended the hearing after eight full hours with an appeal to Rubio and others who had expressed concerns, asking senators to discuss these things in private without media there.
It could be interpreted as a mild rebuke to Rubio for playing to the TV cameras, but it was also an acknowledgement that Tillerson was trying to “make sure he’s not getting out over his skis” and to avoid getting on the wrong side of a president-elect “he doesn’t know that well yet.”
“Let’s really think about this. This is a very important decision,” Corker said. Trump, he said, comes into the presidency “without a great deal of background” in foreign policy and “for him to have someone who he has confidence in … helping him shape his views to me is something that is very very important.”
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