Tillerson Fails to Win Over Skeptical Rubio
Rex Tillerson has closed his share of high-stakes deals as the CEO of ExxonMobil, persuading and partnering with unpredictable players across the globe. But on Wednesday he fell short of winning over a new, and especially key, contingent: the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, gatekeeper to Tillerson’s confirmation as the next secretary of state.
During roughly eight hours of testimony, Tillerson faced surprise pushback from a Republican questioner, Sen. Marco Rubio. The onetime rival of President-elect Donald Trump praised Tillerson’s personal character but pressed him aggressively on his stance toward Russia and President Vladimir Putin, with whom Tillerson cultivated a close relationship as head of ExxonMobil, and on human rights violations across the globe.
In one telling exchange, Tillerson would not, at Rubio’s urging, characterize Putin as a “war criminal” for his country’s actions in Syria, even as Rubio named the atrocities. Instead, Tillerson said he would wish to review classified information before reaching a conclusion.
“None of this is classified, Mr. Tillerson,” Rubio said in one of the hearing’s memorable moments. “People are dead.”
Rubio appeared to grow more frustrated with Tillerson as he later declined to comment on human rights abuses in China, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, chiding Tillerson that “in order to have moral clarity, we need clarity.”
“We can’t achieve moral clarity with rhetorical ambiguity,” Rubio went on.
Following the hearing, Rubio would not commit to supporting or opposing Tillerson, leaving his nomination in limbo. The narrow balance of power on the committee means Tillerson likely cannot afford to lose Rubio’s vote or that of any other Republican — but Rubio insisted he would not be cowed by that dynamic.
“I’m prepared to do what’s right,” Rubio said. “I'm not analyzing it from a partisan standpoint.”
Tillerson’s nomination poses an early test for Trump, who has raised some eyebrows among lawmakers and foreign leaders with his unconventional worldview and apparent disregard for diplomatic convention.
In selecting Tillerson, who has never worked in the public sector and has no direct foreign policy experience, Trump signaled that he hopes to disrupt the manner in which the U.S. conducts its foreign relations, with renewed focus on showcasing strength and cutting difficult deals.
But the nomination is also testing the limits of Republican support for the incoming president, with some lawmakers still skeptical of his intentions on foreign policy — in particular with regard to Russia and Putin, whom Trump has praised.
Tillerson’s nomination has added another facet to those doubts, given his deep history with Putin as a powerful business partner who brought billions of dollars of investment and oil revenues to Russia.
In remarks introducing the nominee on Wednesday, former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Democrat, nodded to both of Tillerson’s potential conflicts, with Russia and ExxonMobil, asserting that "both are assets, not liabilities."
Sen. John Cornyn, who hails from Tillerson’s home state of Texas and also spoke Wednesday on his behalf, added that the would-be secretary of state "understands how to separate friendships and business.”
“He knows who he works for,” Cornyn said.
Tillerson seemed to approach the hearing with a clear-eyed view of the hurdles facing him. He addressed Russia in direct terms in his opening remarks, saying it “poses a danger” to American and Western interests. Later, he expressed doubts that Russia could ever be a “friend” to the U.S., as Trump has suggested it could be.
Tillerson studded the hearing with some other key views in contrast to those expressed by Trump, including support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership in some form, and a commitment to honor NATO Article 5, ensuring mutual defense, without regard to funding by members states.
But it is not clear whether those departures from Trump’s emerging foreign policy doctrine will be sufficient to assuage concerns among skeptical lawmakers, and Republicans in particular.
The holes left for Trump to fill in that doctrine did not ease Tillerson’s task Wednesday. Where Trump has been vague on some areas of foreign policy, senators often pressed the nominee to elaborate. Although one transition official said Tuesday that Tillerson intended to “put meat on bones of what Trump foreign policy will be,” on Wednesday he dodged firm positions repeatedly, to the annoyance of some senators.
On occasion, committee Chairman Bob Corker would nudge Tillerson with questions to help sharpen his responses. Tillerson and senators on the committee acknowledged the learning curve he would face in transitioning to the foreign policy sphere — and Tillerson at times showcased his personal limitations.
During one exchange regarding Cuba policy, Tillerson conceded, “I don’t have a great depth of knowledge on Cuba.”
Tillerson also hinted at another difficult transition, from decades working for ExxonMobil to his potential new role leading the State Department. He tripped up on questions regarding ExxonMobil’s role in lobbying to shape sanctions, which the company afterward tweeted to clarify.
And even as Tillerson stressed his own transparency, he was not always forthcoming with his responses. When he would not respond to a question from Sen. Tim Kaine regarding ExxonMobil’s approach to climate change, Kaine pressed him: “Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question or are you refusing to answer my question?”
“A little of both,” Tillerson said, to laughter in the hearing room.
A key feature of Tillerson’s appeal among his backers, of course, is that his resume differs from those of more traditional nominees. But his detractors on the committee warned that his experience, negotiating with world leaders from a business perspective, might not translate.
“Diplomacy is not the same as deal-making,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat.
To steer America’s diplomacy, Tillerson will need to close one deal, however: with the Foreign Relations Committee. The question now is whether Republican senators, and Rubio in particular, will buy in.