Former ExxonMobil head Rex Tillerson on Wednesday equivocated on Russia’s human rights abuses, international family planning programs, and climate change—all areas on which President-elect Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Department of State will wield disproportionate influence.
Tillerson faced markedly tough questions on the intertwined issues from Democrats and one Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), at his ongoing confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate. The 21-member Senate Foreign Relations Committee is divided between ten Democrats and 11 Republicans. Rubio could cross the aisle and vote with committee Democrats against Tillerson, but even then, the nomination could proceed to the Senate floor for a final vote, just not with the committee’s endorsement, per the chamber’s rules.
Top Democrats on the panel didn’t hide their ire toward Tillerson, a “friend” of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a day after a dossier surfaced containing unsubstantiated claims that Trump colluded with Russia during the presidential election to undermine Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s campaign. (BuzzFeed published the full dossier, which also contained claims that Russian officials were prepared to blackmail Trump with a sex tape.)
Neither did Rubio, Trump’s one-time opponent and the target of “Little Marco” taunts during the Republican presidential primary.
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“Do you believe during the 2016 presidential campaign, Russian intelligence services directed a campaign of active measures involving the hacking of emails, the strategic leak of these emails, the use of Internet trolls, and the dissemination of fake news with the goal of denigrating a presidential candidate and also undermining faith in our election process?” Rubio asked.
Tillerson said he did not know because he had not yet been cleared—a point of contention among Democrats who charged that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is steamrolling opposition to Trump’s cabinet nominees without proper FBI and ethics reviews. The independent, nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics raised the accelerated confirmation hearing schedule as a matter of “great concern.”
Tillerson Hedges on Russia, Human Rights
Rubio also grilled Tillerson over Putin’s record of human rights abuses at home and war crimes abroad.
“Let me ask you this question. Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?” Rubio asked.
“I would not use that term,” Tillerson responded.
Tillerson later told Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) that he hadn’t had an in-depth discussion about Russia with Trump.
“That’s pretty amazing,” Menendez said.
Menendez questioned whether Tillerson would be able to “recalibrate” his priorities from a corporate leader to a secretary of state, his “shareholders” soon to be “the American people and their security and their interests,” given his reticence to international sanctions.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge that when sanctions are imposed they, by their design, are going to harm American business,” Tillerson said. “That’s the idea—to disrupt America’s business engagement in whatever country is being targeted for sanctions.”
Tillerson called sanctions a “powerful tool” that should be applied “equally everywhere,” ideally in tandem with other countries. He said ExxonMobil had never “directly” lobbied against Russia sanctions under his leadership.
Amnesty International USA warned in a call with reporters Monday that as secretary of state, Tillerson could no longer ignore human rights abuses in Russia and other countries, as he did while helming ExxonMobil.
“Empowering Women” Falls Short of Embracing Reproductive Rights
Serra Sippel, president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) echoed those concerns from a human rights perspective, particularly on reproductive health care.
“From reproductive rights to women’s rights to LGBTQI rights, Russia has an abysmal human rights record. We expect members of the Senate committee to thoroughly examine the relationship between Russia and Mr. Tillerson,” said Sippel. “Moreover, we expect whomever becomes Secretary of State to uphold U.S. commitments to health, human rights, and to supporting civil society. CHANGE stands ready to push back on any attempt to pull the rug out from under women and girls globally.”
Prior to Tillerson’s nomination, NARAL Pro-Choice America warned that Trump’s secretary of state could directly influence reproductive freedom, from cutting United Nations Population Fund funding to reinstating the “global gag rule”—both favorite political footballs of congressional Republicans.
Tillerson will also decide the future of key State Department programs, or as NARAL warned, “a pro-women secretary of state could oversee the creation of programs that meet the needs of women and girls, while an administration hostile toward women’s health could ignore them altogether or hire staff who make it clear to foreign governments that women’s rights are not important or can be bargained away.”
Trump’s transition team last month asked the State Department to name employees working on gender equality and gender-based violence.
During the confirmation hearing Wednesday, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) said that action sends a “chilling message.” She pressed Tillerson on whether he would commit to continuing State Department and USAID programs dedicated to empowering women.
Tillerson answered with a direct “yes.” But he dodged a follow-up question on family planning programs, saying that he would have to examine all aspects before giving a similar commitment.
Shaheen said that “access to modern methods of contraception” for women with unmet family planning needs would result in 52 million fewer unintended pregnancies worldwide, along with subsequent reductions in stillborn births, miscarriages, and unsafe abortions.
“I would attest that this is not only a humanitarian value that we should support, but also an economic one,” Shaheen said.
The first hours of the hearing did not touch on how the State Department would, or would not, work on LGBTQ equality issues under Tillerson. Politico reported that Tillerson’s nomination “added to the uncertainty” among gay diplomats.
“Tillerson is a devout Christian who helped the Boy Scouts of America open their ranks to gays,” the report said. “But his former company’s approach to LGBT issues has not impressed activists; it wasn’t until 2015 that ExxonMobil included sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy, and critics contend that was because the company was reacting to Obama’s executive order requiring federal contractors to protect gays and lesbians.”
Kaine: #ExxonKnew About Climate Change
Tillerson’s “unconscionable” nomination, according to one leading environmental activist, also raised uncertainty around the issue of climate change.
Though ExxonMobil’s website states that “the risk of climate change is clear and the risk warrants action,” Tillerson told Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) that he might articulate his personal views—the views Trump requested—“a little bit differently.”
But Tillerson said that asking for the names of State Department employees who have worked on climate change, as Trump’s transition team sought from the U.S. Department of Energy, would be “a pretty unhelpful way to get started.”
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Clinton’s running mate, repeatedly asked Tillerson about whether ExxonMobil had funded junk climate science.
“Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question, or are you refusing to answer my question?” Kaine asked.
“A little of both,” Tillerson answered.
Kaine later borrowed a hashtag from progressive advocates challenging Tillerson.