Tillerson: ISIL, not Russia, remains 'first priority'
Arguing America must reassert its interests, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, tried on Wednesday to allay concerns that a Trump administration will pull back from the world or ignore threats from rivals. (Jan 11) AP
WASHINGTON — Former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson — Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of State — testified Wednesday that the United States should be “clear-eyed” about Russia and should focus on defeating the Islamic State.
“American leadership must not only be renewed, it must be asserted,” Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing. “Competing priorities must be addressed, but they must not distract us from our first priority, which is defeating (the Islamic State).”
The primary action against the Islamic State would be “to remove its caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, which will hurt the militant group’s credibility but not remove it as threat, Tillerson said.
He said the U.S. “must be clear-eyed about our relationship with Russia. … Russia today poses a danger. It invaded Ukraine including Crimea and violated the laws of war. But it’s an absence of American leadership that left this door open.”
He admitted that Russia and the United States are unlikely to be friends. “We do not have the same values. But there is scope to define a different relationship to bring down the temperature of the conflict we have today,” he said. “Dialogue is critical so these things do not spin out of control.”
Tillerson, 64, who left the private sector this month, sounded prepared for the hearing, but he was cautious when it came to labeling war crimes and human rights violators, saying he wanted to see intelligence reports before commenting.
Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn, told reporters after the hearing that Tillerson “handled himself well,” despite the fact that some of his answers were rather vague or cautious.
“If you look at the fact that 30 days ago he didn’t know he was going to be the nominee, it’s understandable,” Corker said.
The ranking Democrat on the committee, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, said Tillerson was not definitive in his answers about human rights and war crimes conduct. “And as Sen. Marco Rubio said, you don’t need a classified briefing to answer those,” Cardin said.
During the hearing, several senators asked whether Tillerson agreed that Russia committed war crimes with its actions in Aleppo, Syria, in 2016; it’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014; and the murder of journalists and other critics around the world. Tillerson said he would need more information to make such a conclusion.
Cardin pointed out that Tillerson blamed a failure of U.S. leadership for Russia’s recent aggressive actions into other countries. Asked about Russia’s invasion of Crimea, Tillerson said “that was a taking of territory that was not theirs,” adding that it “caught a lot of people by surprise. … The real question is about the response.”
Rubio, R-Fla., had asked Tillerson if he considers Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal, mentioning Russia’s actions in Syria and Russia’s war against an uprising in Chechnya province.
“Those are very very serious charges to make, and I would want more information before making that conclusion,” Tillerson said.
Corker asked if Tillerson would agree such actions were criminal if U.S. intelligence agencies provided information confirming they did happen. “Yes sir,” Tillerson said.
Corker earlier told Tillerson his nomination makes sense for a president-elect who looks at the world with the eyes of a businessman who was head of one of the world’s largest corporations with operations in dozens of countries.
“You may in fact be an inspired choice,” Corker said.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., asked Trump about ExxonMobil’s business in Iran, Syria and Sudan through a joint venture in the early 2000s, when those countries were under U.S. sanctions as sponsors of terrorism. As USA TODAY reported this week, ExxonMobil said the transactions were legal because they were conducted by a European-based company and involved no U.S. personnel.
“Was there any country you would not do business with?” Murphy asked.
“The standard was ‘was it legal?’” Tillerson said. “Do they honor contract sanctity, do they have rule of law?”
Sen. Jeff Coons, D-Del., asked if Tillerson would work with Congress to enact sanctions against Russia “for its war crimes in Syria and Ukraine and its attacks on our democracy.”
“I would hope the executive branch would have the latitude to use those sanctions,” Tillerson answered. Later he said: “Having ineffective sanctions is worse than having no sanctions at all. It runs the risk of sending a weak signal.”
Tillerson appeared to reject Trump’s campaign pledge to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
“I don’t support a blanket type of travel ban on people coming to this country,” he said. He also acknowledge the “huge challenge” of needing to vet people arriving here.
Senators also asked about climate change, especially considering his role at the helm of ExxonMobil, one of the world’s largest petroleum producers.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., asked Tillerson to confirm media reports that ExxonMobil concluded as early as the 1970s that petroleum-based emissions damage the climate, yet funded and promoted contrary views.
Tillerson replied, “Since I’m no longer at ExxonMobil I can no longer speak on its behalf.”
Kaine then asked, “Do you lack knowledge or refuse to share your knowledge?”
“A little of both,” Tillerson said.
At another point, he was asked whether Trump’s frequent tweets commenting about foreign policy could undermine his diplomatic work as secretary of State.
If confirmed, “I’m not going to tell the boss how to communicate with the American people,” Tillerson answered. “I have his (Trump’s) cellphone number …. and he’s promised me he’ll answer.”
Tillerson had many business dealings with Russia. In 2013, the oil executive received Russia’s Order of Friendship award, which is given to foreign nationals who the Russian government believes have worked to better relations. Tillerson received the honor after inking a deal with a Russian oil company. He has also been critical of U.S. economic sanctions against Russia.
Rex Tillerson is Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of State. While Tillerson was at ExxonMobil, new reports show the company made business deals with countries who were under U.S. sanctions at the time. USA TODAY NETWORK
Tillerson started working for Exxon in 1975 until he resigned from the company to join Trump’s Cabinet. Tillerson started as a production engineer and moved up the ranks before becoming chairman and CEO in 2006.