WASHINGTON – Secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson called U.S. intelligence findings of Russian interference in the presidential election “troubling” Wednesday but said he has not yet seen classified information about allegations that Russia intended to help President-elect Donald Trump.
Tillerson, the former top executive at ExxonMobil, also declined to strongly denounce Russian military actions in Syria that have led to civilian deaths or to broadly condemn alleged human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and the Philippines. He conceded that climate change is man-made and needs to be addressed by world powers – but also that there’s very little he can do to control the potential global fallout of Trump’s tweeting.
Tillerson’s hearing was the marquee event on a busy day amid a consequential week for the incoming Trump administration as the president-elect’s top Cabinet picks begin the confirmation process. As Tillerson testified, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Trump’s choice for attorney general, was sitting for his second day of hearings with the Judiciary Committee and Elaine L. Chao, Trump’s choice for transportation secretary, testified before the Senate commerce panel.
Lawmakers were also keeping tabs on Trump’s long-anticipated news conference in New York, his first since winning the presidency, where he conceded that Russia had meddled in the U.S. election.
Tillerson’s sometimes testy confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave the 64-year-old Texan his first chance to address concerns that ExxonMobil put profits ahead of human rights, environmental and policy concerns, and to explain his relationship with Russia.
“I understand full well the responsibilities and the seriousness” of the job, Tillerson said. “I don’t view this as a game in any way,” he said, rejecting a characterization that he might view problems and policies as transactional.
Sharp inquiries by senators in both parties signaled that Democrats and Republicans are still skeptical about whether Tillerson is suited to be the chief U.S. diplomat alongside a president with no government experience, particularly at a time of increasingly strained relations between the United States and Russia.
With his smooth baritone voice, he assured senators that he would set aside a profit-driven worldview born of 41 years as an oil executive and would recuse himself from decisions involving his former employer, the world’s largest oil company. Tillerson retired Dec. 31 and has pledged to sell his remaining ExxonMobil stock.
But Tillerson seemed constrained and at times reluctant in answering questions about some of the most controversial positions adopted by Trump during the presidential campaign. In some cases he said he does not yet have sufficient information to comment in detail, as with the Russian presidential hacking allegations clouding Trump’s ascension to the presidency now, and in other cases he said the incoming administration has not yet settled on its views.
“In my conversations with him on the subjects we have discussed, he’s been very open and inviting of my views and respectful of those views,” Tillerson said of Trump. “My sense is that were going to have all the views presented on the table.”
Tillerson called himself a pragmatist about Russia, which he said is not a friend of the United States but can be a partner. Moscow has been emboldened in Ukraine and elsewhere by a void in strong U.S. leadership, Tillerson said, and he pledged a tough stance with both Russia and China over territorial ambitions.
“We have stumbled,” he said. “In recent decades, we have cast American leadership into doubt.”
He was most critical of foreign policy decisions made by President Barack Obama, but he also found fault with the Iraq War launched by Republican President George W. Bush.
He declined to label Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal or to condemn Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte over human rights abuses the leader himself claims he committed.
He seemed to stun some senators by saying he had not yet discussed Russian action in Aleppo, Syria, with Trump. He frustrated others by appearing to stonewall questions about ExxonMobil lobbying against economic sanctions, especially concerning Russia, where the company does extensive business.
Tillerson said he never lobbied on the issue and fumbled over whether ExxonMobil ever had. At one point he said that to the best of his memory, ExxonMobil had not done that.
Democrats on the committee produced lobbying records that show ExxonMobil had said it was lobbying over various economic sanctions measures, including tough sanctions on Iran in 2010 and more recently over sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea.
Under questioning by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a 2016 GOP presidential candidate, Tillerson did not dispute intelligence officials’ findings on Russia, saying that he had reviewed the unclassified report that U.S. agencies released last week on Russian interference in the election. More detailed classified versions of that report were presented to Trump and to President Obama.
“That report clearly is troubling and indicates that all of the actions you just described were undertaken,” Tillerson said.
Rubio is the only Republican on the committee who has suggested he might oppose Tillerson – a move that could imperil the former executive’s nomination. Any GOP resistance could endanger the nomination in the Senate, which Republicans hold with 52 seats.
As the hearing concluded, Rubio signaled he has not made up his mind.
“I have to make sure I’m 100 percent behind whatever decision that I make, because when I make it, it isn’t going to change,” he told reporters.
It is not clear that any Democrats on the committee will vote for Tillerson. But some Democrats were wondering, given how much Tillerson differed with some of Trump’s past statements, whether Tillerson is the best nominee that Democrats can expect from the president-elect, according to one Senate Democrat closely following the hearings.
Rubio has become a proxy for other GOP senators voicing similar concerns about Tillerson’s views on Putin and Russia. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who do not sit on the panel, have indicated reluctance to vote for Tillerson, as have others. McCain said Tuesday that he had no plans to attend the proceedings but that he intended to send Tillerson written questions regarding Russia “and other matters.”
Concerns with Tillerson’s ties to Russia include that he accepted an Order of Friendship award given personally by Putin in 2013 and because he has met with the Russian leader and other senior government officials numerous times.
Tillerson appeared to break with Trump over the whether Russia was justified in annexing the Crimea region of Ukraine, the value of an international climate agreement and the wisdom of expanding the number of countries that possess nuclear weapons, among other issues.
He also appeared to depart from the president he would serve in support for the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and rejection of any “blanket” ban on Muslim immigration or registry.
Tillerson hedged on his views on the human role in climate change and the extent of the threat it poses, although he did say he thinks the United States is better served by remaining a party to the international agreement on climate change brokered under the Obama administration.
Trump has vowed to “cancel” U.S. participation in the accord, in which hundreds of countries collectively agreed to slash carbon emissions to help mitigate the effects of global warming.
Under clipped questioning about Trump’s business dealings and Exxon’s views on climate science from Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who was the Democratic nominee for vice president in the 2016 election, Tillerson repeatedly answered “I have no knowledge.”
Kaine asked whether the response came from a lack of knowledge or a refusal to answer; Tillerson said with a smile, “a little of both.”
Tillerson flashed his blunt style again when asked by Sen. Todd C. Young, R-Ind., how he might urge Trump to check his prolific tweeting to preserve foreign relations.
“I don’t think I’m going to be telling the boss how he ought to communicate with the American people. That’s going to be his choice,” Tillerson said, adding that he expects to be in sync with Trump on world affairs.
If there’s any disagreement, “I have his cellphone number,” Tillerson added. “And he’s promised me he’ll answer – and he does.”
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The Washington Post’s Karoun Demirjian, Karen DeYoung and Steven Mufson contributed to this report.