Tillerson says Russia poses a 'danger,' but defeating ISIL is 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 pledged Wednesday to restore  American leadership in the world and to defeat the Islamic State as a priority in the Middle East during his Senate confirmation hearing to be Donald Trump’s secretary of State.

“American leadership must not only be renewed, it must be asserted,” Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “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 group’s credibility but not remove it as threat, Tillerson said.

Tillerson also 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 said.

Tillerson 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.”

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Several senators asked whether he 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.

Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the committee, pointed out that Tillerson blamed a failure of U.S. leadership for Russia’s recent aggressive actions into other countries.

“We are the only global superpower with the means and the moral compass capable of shaping the world for good,” Tillerson said.

When Cardin 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.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., 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.

Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., 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, having been 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. “You are the person in charge to provide advice to the president-elect on foreign policy,” he added. “What the people here today are going to want to know is how are you going to advise.”

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 were damaging climate, yet decided to fund and promote views contrary to its awareness of the science.

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.”

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, are there mitigating actions that can be taken to prevent adverse actions that might be taken.”

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, 64, 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. His experience negotiating with foreign governments — including governments hostile to the United States — was one of the reasons the president-elect selected him.

“The thing I like best about Rex Tillerson is that he has vast experience at dealing successfully with all types of foreign governments,” Trump tweeted after announcing Tillerson’s appointment in December.

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