Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that attempts to undermine U.S. democracy, such as the Russian hacking efforts to influence the election, are not new, but the United States and its allies should have supported a more forceful response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
As the hearing continued into late afternoon, some of Trump’s past comments came back to haunt Tillerson. Asked by Sen. Bob Menendez, D-NJ, whether he would characterize Mexicans as “rapists” and “criminals” Tillerson said he would never describe any group of people in such general terms.
“Mexico is a longstanding neighbor and friend of this country,” he said. “We have many common areas of concern.”
Tillerson also acknowledged that man-made climate change is real, which Trump has doubted. But Tillerson questioned what impact climate change would have in the future, essentially sticking to the position he expressed as Exxon CEO.
“The increase in the greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere are having an effect,” Tillerson said. “Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.”
Tillerson, 64, is seeking confirmation as secretary of state after his nomination by President-elect Donald Trump and a career spent at Exxon, including more than decade as chief executive. In testimony, senators focused on Tillerson’s views on Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin,with whom he had done business at Exxon, climate change, a high-profile international issue on which Trump has expressed skepticism, and statements by Trump.
Tillerson said he would have advised Ukraine, which had held and governed Crimea, to move all its military assets to the Russian border, with support from U.S. intelligence and NATO.
“The absence of a very firm, forceful response to the taking of Crimea was judged by the leadership in Russia as a weak response,” responding to a question from Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, what he would have done differently when Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine.
Tillerson told senators that that European nation in NATO alliance are right be alarmed at Russia and its aggressive moves in recent years, which, in addition to the Crimean annexation, include incursions into Ukraine and another former Soviet Republic, Georgia. But he also blamed a lack U.S. leadership for Russia’s resurgence, citing “weak or mixed signals with ‘red lines’ that turned into green lights.”
With U.S. intelligence agencies reporting the Russian government was behind the hacking of the Democratic Party’s computer servers ahead of the presidential election, cyber security has been at the top of some senators’ minds.
During the hearing, Tillerson acknowledged the severity of the threat and argued attempts to undermine U.S. democracy were not new.
“I note that the inter-agency report acknowledges these activities were carried out in the Cold War, ” he said. “Only the tools have advanced in sophistication,” he said.
Tillerson will need to convince senators that he can adjust his mindset from that of the profit-seeking CEO of one of the world’s largest oil companies and truly separate himself from the corporation where he worked for more than 40 years.
On the surface, his work there would appear similar to that of a diplomat’s, jetting around the world to meet with heads of state and engage in contentious and tense negotiations. Only at Exxon, international affairs – whether it be armed conflict in West Africa or a new government in Japan – is viewed through the lens of oil, how events affect demand for petroleum and the company’s ability to produce it.
At the University of Texas in Austin last year, Tillerson made clear the contrast when he discussed dealings with world leaders, including Putin – a contentious point on his résumé for senators from both sides of the aisle.
“I have a very close relationship with (Putin). I don’t agree with everything he’s doing, but he understands I’m a businessman and our company has invested a lot of money in Russia,” Tillerson said in February.
After questioning the value of U.S. sanctions against Russia in 2014 – as they put on the hold an Exxon project in the Russian Arctic – Tillerson offered a new point of view at the hearings Wednesday.
“Sanctions are a powerful tool, and they’re an important tool to deter action once actors have acted up,” he said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, D-Florida, honed in on Tillerson’s relationship with Putin, asking Tillerson if he considered Putin a war criminal.
Tillerson said, “I would not use that term.” But later he said what he knew of Russia’s actions in Syria appeared to constitute a war crime – though under the caveat he would want to see the classified reports he has not yet been given access too before making a decision.
Throughout the first hour of questioning, Tillerson stuck to the idea Russia, “while likely never to be friend,” of the United States was not necessarily an enemy either.
“There is scope to define a a different relationship that can bring down the temperature,” he said.
Democrats on the Foreign Relations committee were also eager to pin Tillerson down on climate change. In recent years, Exxon Mobil has shifted away from past skepticism of climate research, supporting the Paris agreement on climate change agreed to by close to 200 world leaders in 2014.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, said in a private meeting Tillerson had expressed support for a tax on carbon emissions as a solution.
But Tillerson was hesitant in response.
“When it gets to tax policy, that’s going to be the responsibility of other agencies,” he said.
Bloomberg News contributed.