WASHINGTON — President-elect Trump’s pick for secretary of State faced the toughest questioning at his confirmation hearing from a Republican who grilled him on his commitment to human rights and a Democrat who said Rex Tillerson’s company, Exxon, tried to crush Iran sanctions out of business interests.
Questions started with senators’ concerns about the Trump administration and Russia, yet Tillerson told the committee that conversation between the nominee and the president-elect about Russia policy “has not occurred yet.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who introduced sanctions legislation Tuesday against Russia for its hacking activities along with Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), asked Tillerson if he would advise Trump to sign the punitive measures.
“I would certainly want to examine all the corners, all four corners of that,” Tillerson replied, adding he would take issue with a bill that “leaves the executive branch no latitudes or flexibility in dealing with the broad array of cyber threats.”
“I think it is important that those be dealt with on a country-by-country basis, taking all other elements into consideration the relationship — so getting the executive the tool is one thing, requiring the executive to use it without any other considerations, I would have concerns about,” he said.
Rubio asked Tillerson if he considers Russian President Vladimir Putin to be a “war criminal.”
“I would not use that term,” the nominee replied.
“Well, let me describe the situation in Aleppo and perhaps that will help you reach that conclusion,” the senator retorted, describing Russian strikes on civilian infrastructure in Syria and Chechnya. “…There’s so much information out there. It should not be hard to say that Vladimir Putin’s military has conducted war crimes in Aleppo because it is never acceptable, you would agree, for a military to specifically target civilians, which is what’s happened there through the Russian military, and I find it discouraging, your inability to cite that.”
Asked if “Putin and his cronies are responsible for ordering the murder of countless dissidents, journalists and political opponents,” Tillerson responded, “I do not have sufficient information to make that claim… people who speak up for freedom and regimes that are oppressive are often at threat and these things happen to them. In terms of assigning specific responsibilities, I would have to have more information.”
Rubio later asked, “Do you believe China is one of the world’s worst human rights violators?”
“China has serious human rights violations,” Tillerson said. “Relative to categorizing it against other nations, I would have to have more information, but they certainly have serious human rights violations.”
The senator then asked about strongman Rodrigo Duterte, and reports that “over 6,200 people have been killed in the Philippines by police and vigilantes in alleged drug raids” since he took office last summer.
“America and the people of the Philippines have a longstanding friendship,” replied Tillerson. “I think it’s important that we keep that in perspective in engaging with the government of the Philippines, that that longstanding friendship — and they have been an ally and we need to ensure that they stay an ally.”
When he added that he needed more information to make a determination, Rubio noted that Duterte “openly brags about the people that are being shot and killed on the streets, who he has determined are drug dealers without any trial.”
Rubio also asked if Saudi Arabia is a human rights violator.
“Saudi Arabia certainly does not share the same values of America. However, American interests have been advocating in Saudi Arabia for some time,” Tillerson said.
“You’re not familiar with the state of affairs for people in Saudi Arabia? What life is like for women? They can’t drive. They have people jailed and lashed. You are familiar with all of that?” Rubio continued.
“In terms of when you designate someone or label someone, the question is: Is that the most effective way to have progress continue to be made in Saudi Arabia or any other country?” the former Exxon CEO responded. “…How and if they ever arrive to the same value system we have, I can’t predict that. But what I do believe is it is moving in the direction that want it to move. And what I wouldn’t want to do is to take some kind of a precipitous action that suddenly causes the leadership in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia to have to interrupt that.”
Rubio emphasized that “in order to have moral clarity, we need clarity.”
“We can’t achieve moral clarity with rhetorical ambiguity,” the Florida senator said. “The position that you’ve been nominated to is, in my opinion, the second most important position in the U.S. government, with all due respect to the vice president. It is the face of this country for billions of people, for hundreds of millions of people as well, and particularly for people that are suffering and they’re hurting.”
Menendez said Exxon was “the in-house lobbyist for Russia” against the sanctions imposed after the invasion of Ukraine. “What are you gonna say to Vladimir Putin when he says to you, but Rex, you said sanctions were bad?” the senator asked.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge that when sanctions are imposed, they by their design are going to harm American business. That’s the idea, it’s to disrupt America’s business engagement in whatever country’s being targeted for sanctions,” Tillerson said.
“Leadership and a moral compass, it’s not about disadvantaging American businesses. It’s about putting patriotism over profit,” said Menendez, who voted against the nuclear deal with Iran, highlighting Iran and North Korea sanctions. “Diplomacy is not the same as deal-making. Diplomacy requires getting other countries often to do things they may not always want to do. And there isn’t necessarily something to trade for it for.”
“You lobbied against the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act which I was the author of. You reportedly, under ExxonMobil, and I say you, ExxonMobil, but you were the head of ExxonMobil, wanted to eliminate secondary sanctions that would prevent joint ventures,” the senator continued. “This makes sense as in 2003 and 2004 and 2005, you were engaged to a subsidiary company in businesses with countries who the United States listed as state sponsors of terrorism including Iran, Syria and the Sudan. Countries that except for the maneuver of your subsidiary, ExxonMobil could not have been dealing with.”
The company is listed as a member of USA Engage, a coalition that lobbies against sanctions and backed the Iran nuclear deal.
“How are you going to recalibrate your priorities as secretary of State?” Menendez asked. “Your shareholders are the American people and their security and their interests.”
Tillerson said he’s “never lobbied against sanctions personally.”
“My pivot now, if confirmed to be secretary of State, will have one mission only, and that is to represent the interests of the American people. And as I’ve stated multiple times, sanctions are an important and powerful tool,” he added. “But designing poor sanctions and having poor and ineffective sanctions can have a worse effect than having no sanctions at all if they convey a weak response.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said there are 14 different lobbying reports from 2006 to 2014 in which Exxon “did list lobbying on sanctions as part of its political activity.”
Menendez produced four Lobbying Disclosure Act forms noting Exxon’s lobbying activity on the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act of 2010, the Russian Aggression Prevention Act of 2014, the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014, and the Stand for Ukraine Act.
“And so just like you told me earlier that in your conversation with the president-elect, you didn’t discuss Russia, it’s a little difficult to think you actually don’t know that Exxon was lobbying on these issues of sanctions,” Menendez said. “…Could you imagine being in a position in which you would have your company and its shareholders pay money to lobby for sanctions that would affect your bottom line?”
“I don’t know, Senator,” Tillerson said. “It would depend on the circumstance.”