If former ExxonMobil CEO and current secretary of state-designate Rex Tillerson’s biggest vulnerability (in the eyes of Republicans, at least) is his perceived coziness with Vladimir Putin, the timing of his confirmation hearing – the morning after an explosive report suggesting the Russian government may be blackmailing Donald Trump – was less than ideal.
Tillerson’s date with the Committee on Foreign Relations started Wednesday morning, hours after CNN broke the news that both Trump and President Obama had been briefed on claims the Russian government was in possession of compromising personal and financial information about the president-elect. The information, reportedly gathered by a former British spy whose work U.S. intelligence agencies have found credible in the past, was drawn from a lengthy dossier later published by BuzzFeed.
But just how badly Wednesday’s hearing went for Tillerson can’t be blamed on timing alone. The ExxonMobil CEO came off unprepared or unwilling to answer basic questions from committee members, and struggled to forge a convincing impression that he would be able to take a hardline stance against Russia, if necessary, given the close ties he forged with Putin in the past. Oh, and he appeared to perjure himself to boot.
Tillerson wouldn’t say if he supported sanctions against Russia if the reports Russia tried to influence U.S. elections turned out to be true; Sen. Marco Rubio called that “troubling.” Tillerson said he hadn’t had an in-depth discussion about Russia with Trump. “That’s pretty amazing,” Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez muttered in disbelief.
When Tillerson was questioned, under oath, about ExxonMobil’s history lobbying the Senate against Russian sanctions, he first feigned confusion about whether the company would have lobbied for or against sanctions, then denied any knowledge of such lobbying. Not only did ExxonMobil file lobbying disclosures at the time, but committee chairman Bob Corker recalled personally fielding inquiries from Tillerson. “I think you called me at the time,” Corker said.
All Tillerson really needed to do at his hearing was reassure Republican committee members skittish about Trump’s closeness to Russia – but he struggled to clear even that low bar, dissembling through a series of pointed questions from Rubio early in the hearing.
Did Putin direct the campaign to undermine the election? “I’m not in a position to make that determination.”
Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal? “I would not use that term.”
Did Russian forces commit war crimes in Syria? “Those are very, very serious charges to make, and I would want to have much more information before reaching a conclusion.”
Does Putin’s regime murder dissidents, journalists and political opponents? “I do not have sufficient information to make that claim.”
Maybe Tillerson didn’t project a tougher stance on Russia because he knew how unconvincing he sounded when he did. At one point, the oil executive criticized America’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea – sanctions, the same ones ExxonMobil lobbied against – as “weak.” Later, he said it was “impossible” to be friends with Russia – even though, as many have pointed out, he quite literally received an Order of Friendship from the Kremlin.
Though many of his critics welcomed the additional scrutiny of Tillerson’s hearing thanks to the Russia news cycle, environmental groups and protesters – whose outbursts punctuated Wednesday’s proceedings – had hoped to draw much more attention to his company’s climate change record.
Tim Kaine at least made an effort. “Are these conclusions about ExxonMobil’s history of promoting and funding climate science denial, despite its internal awareness of the reality of climate change during your tenure with the company, true or false?” the Virginia senator asked.
Tillerson said that since he no longer worked for the company, he couldn’t answer the question.
“I’m not asking you on behalf of ExxonMobil. You have resigned from ExxonMobil. I’m asking you whether those allegations about ExxonMobil’s knowledge of climate science and decision to fund and promote a view contrary to its awareness of its science, whether the allegations are true or false,” Kaine said.
Again Tillerson demurred.
“Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question, or are you refusing to do so?” Kaine asked.
Tillerson responded, “A little of both,” a fitting summary of his entire appearance Wednesday. The committee, comprised of 10 Democrats and 11 Republicans, has yet to offer a recommendation on Tillerson’s nomination. It could take just one Republican defection to stall his appointment, a fact Rubio told reporters he was acutely aware of.
“This is a very important decision, and I recognize the partisan split on the committee and what it means,” Rubio said after the hearing. “I’m prepared to do what’s right.”
Republicans and Team Trump are trying to rush through hearings for several controversial cabinet picks this week.