Secretary of State nominee Tillerson veers from Trump on key issues

Sen. Corker expects Senate to confirm Rex Tillerson as secretary of state

WASHINGTON - Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson expressed views on Wednesday at odds with President-elect Donald Trump's positions on key foreign policy issues like nuclear proliferation, trade deals, climate change and relations with Mexico.
In a nine-hour Senate confirmation hearing, the former chief executive of oil company Exxon Mobil said he favored maintaining U.S. sanctions against Russia for now and that NATO allies were right to be alarmed by Moscow's growing aggression.

Russia dominated much of the hearing because of concerns by Democrats and Republicans over Moscow's interference in the U.S. presidential election and its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and involvement in the Syrian civil war.

Questions soon moved to the threat posed by Islamic State, China's behavior in the South China Sea, human rights and Tillerson's ability to make a clean break from a career at Exxon Mobil to become America's top diplomat.

Tillerson said his differences with Trump on some major issues would not necessarily put him at loggerheads with the White House.

He said everyone in Trump's Cabinet would have the chance to discuss issues "and the president will decide." He described himself as open and transparent.

In a stark departure from Trump, Tillerson said it would not be acceptable for some U.S. allies to acquire nuclear weapons. He also did not see the need for a Muslim registry, saying he did not support targeting any particular group.

Asked by Democratic Senator Edward Markey about Trump's comments in interviews he would not oppose U.S. allies including Japan obtaining nuclear weapons, Tillerson replied: "I do not agree."

Tillerson said he did not oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, which Trump has criticized, but acknowledged the negotiated deal may not serve all U.S. interests.

Tillerson, however, left room for broad reversals or changes to Obama administration policies, in line with Trump's positions, including trade with Cuba and the Iran nuclear deal, which he said ought to undergo a full review.

The hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was interrupted sporadically by protesters. Tillerson, 64, is expected to be confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate.

'OPEN, FRANK DIALOGUE' WITH MOSCOW

Senators have expressed concern about Tillerson's ties to Russia while at Exxon Mobil and Trump's desire to improve relations with Moscow.

Tillerson refused to call Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal and kept the door open to a possible change in U.S. sanctions policy against Russia, saying he had not seen classified information on Russian meddling.

"I would leave things in the status quo so we are able to convey this can go either way," Tillerson said, suggesting "open and frank" dialog with Moscow to better understand its intentions.

He blamed Russia's aggression toward Ukraine since 2014 on an "absence of American leadership" and said the United States should have taken stronger actions to deter Russia.

"I'm advocating for responses that will deter and prevent further expansion of a bad actor's behavior," he said.

Tillerson said it was a "fair assumption" Putin was aware of Russian efforts to interfere in the U.S. election. He said he had not discussed Russia policy with Trump, which Democratic Senator Robert Menendez said was "pretty amazing."

In a tense exchange, Republican Senator Marco Rubio pushed Tillerson on whether he believed Putin was a war criminal, in reference to Russia's military actions in support of Syria's government.

"I would not use that term," Tillerson said, adding: "Those are very, very serious charges to make and I would want to have much more information before reaching a conclusion."

Rubio, who ran against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, shot back: "There's so much information out there. It should not be hard to say that Vladimir Putin's military has conducted war crimes in Aleppo," referring to the Syrian city recently retaken by government forces backed by Russia.

He added: "I find it discouraging, your inability to cite that which I think is globally accepted."

Tillerson sidestepped questions on human rights, declining to condemn countries like Saudi Arabia and the Philippines for rights abuses, saying he wanted to see the facts first.

Rubio told reporters later that he was unsure he could vote for Tillerson. As one of 11 Republicans on the 21-member panel, his support is key to Tillerson winning the committee's backing.

IRAN DEAL REVIEW

Tillerson said he would recommend a "full review" of the nuclear deal with Iran reached with the United States and world powers. He did not call for an outright rejection of the 2015 accord in which Tehran agreed to curtail its nuclear program in exchange for relief from crippling economic sanctions.

Trump has made contradictory statements about the deal and has threatened to dismantle it.

Tillerson said China should be denied access to islands it had built in the contested South China Sea. He added his approach to dealing with North Korea, which recently said it was close to carrying out its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, would be "a long-term plan" based on sanctions and their proper implementation.

Asked if he could make unbiased decisions after his time at Exxon Mobil, the world's largest publicly traded oil producer, he said he would act in America's interests.

Tillerson dodged a direct question on whether he believed climate change was caused by human activity.

"The risk of climate change does exist and the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken," he said, adding the ability to predict the effect of greenhouse gas was "very limited."

Trump has called global warming a hoax perpetrated by China and has threatened to quit the Paris climate accord, a global agreement to curb emissions.

Tillerson called Mexico "a long-standing neighbor and friend of this country."

Trump has said he will build a wall on the Mexican border, and in his 2015 presidential announcement speech described Mexican migrants to the United States as drug-runners and rapists.

LOBBYING

Tillerson's responses were calm and measured, without any obvious reliance on notes.

He opposed U.S. sanctions against Russia in 2014 over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine because he said he thought they would be ineffective.

On Wednesday, he said he never personally lobbied against sanctions and emphasized that he was not aware of Exxon Mobil directly doing so.

Tillerson later acknowledged he spoke to U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew regarding gaps between American and European sanctions on Russia.

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy vigorously challenged Tillerson on the issue, saying he called a U.S. senator to express concerns over the measures, which "likely constitutes lobbying." Exxon lobbied Congress regarding sanctions against Russia following the annexation of Crimea. The lobbying directly related to energy matters, according to regulatory filings.

© REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque. Protesters at Rex Tillerson confirmation hearing to become U.S. Secretary of State

Rex Tillerson hearing serves as forum for Trump concerns

Senators pressed Rex Tillerson Wednesday over his ties to Russia and to Exxon. But their greater concern seemed to be over whether President-elect Donald Trump would actually undermine the former ExxonMobil CEO he nominated to be his secretary of state.

Would Trump’s unpredictability — and tendency to veer wildly between different positions, and to communicate without warning or discipline on Twitter — allow Tillerson to do his job of representing the United States in meetings with foreign leaders? Would Trump even explain his policies to top officials like his secretary of state, or simply broadcast it in hard-to-interpret fragments as he has done so far? Would foreign governments have more information about Trump’s business dealings and vulnerabilities than his own top negotiators?

These and other questions surfaced repeatedly during the more than seven hours of testimony during Tillerson’s confirmation hearing.

“We’ve had this election where many things have been said and sometimes in unorthodox ways,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said at the beginning of the hearing. “”Not just do world leaders not know where we are … but our body politic here does not know.”

Corker expressed hope, but some doubt, that Tillerson would be able to “translate” Trump’s many pronouncements “into a foreign policy that benefits U.S. national interest.”

The clearest expression of lawmaker anxiety about Trump came when freshman Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., a former U.S. Marine captain, asked Tillerson a series of questions about Trump’s penchant for haphazardly using Twitter. Since the November election, Trump has had a series of freewheeling tweets about national security and other topics, including some posts downplaying alleged Russian interference in the U.S. election.

“Some of the president-elect’s tweets appear to be quickly drafted, not vetted by staff or coordinated with the transition team senior officials. So this gives pause to me,” Young said. “This gives some concern that in the coming months, in the coming years, you might not be empowered to actually serve as chief diplomat. You would lack credibility. So, how do you finesse this? How would you ensure that your legs are not cut out from underneath you?”

Tillerson indicated that he understood Young’s concern but did not offer much to assuage it.

“I understand your point. I’m overseas and it would be my expectation that any way the president might choose to communicate would be supportive of that policy that we’ve agreed on,” Tillerson said.

Young was obviously not satisfied with the answer.

“Do you have in mind any contingency plans?” Young asked him.

“Yes, I have his cellphone number,” Tillerson said. Quiet, nervous laughter rippled through the audience seated behind Tillerson in the Dirksen Senate Office hearing room. After a pause, Tillerson added: “And he’s promised he will answer.”

Young sounded somewhat incredulous at Tillerson’s answers: “We’ll hope for the best there unless you have anything else to add.”

A few moments later, an exchange with Sen. Patrick Murphy, D-Conn., illustrated another example of how Trump’s inclination to say whatever comes into his mind on Twitter will create confusion if he continues to do so as commander-in-chief.

Murphy read Trump’s Jan. 2 tweet in which the president-elect said, “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!”

“That sounds like a red line,” Murphy said.

Tillerson responded that it was hard to know what exactly Trump’s tweet meant. “I don’t know that I would interpret that to be a red line. I could interpret that to be a lot of things,” he said.

But Tillerson told Young that there was probably not much he could do to stop Trump from tweeting. “I don’t think I will be telling the boss how he ought to communicate with the American people,” Tillerson said. “That’s going to be his choice.”

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., was also aghast that Tillerson had not discussed Russia with Trump. “That has not occurred yet,” Tillerson said.

“Pretty amazing,” Menendez said.

Tillerson did in fact break with Trump on his stance toward Russia, taking a far more aggressive and confrontational stance than his would-be boss. The veteran oilman, who received a 2013 Order of Friendship award from Russia, described Moscow as an “adversary,” agreed that Russia interfered in the most recent presidential election and tried to undermine U.S. democracy and said clearly that Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was an illegal act.

His comments stood in stark contrast to the president-elect’s past statements. Last August, he said he would consider recognizing Russia’s action in Crimea as legitimate. “I’m going to take a look at it,” Trump said. “The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.”

Tillerson was adamantly opposed to recognizing the peninsula as Russian land. “That was a taking of territory that was not theirs,” he told Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. And he said that he would have recommended that the U.S. provide “defensive weapons” and “air surveillance” to the Ukrainians on their eastern border.

He also argued that Russia massed troops on Ukraine’s eastern border and has continued to antagonize its neighbor because the U.S.-led response involved only sanctions. “The absence of a very firm, forceful response … was judged by leadership in Russia as a very weak response,” Tillerson said. “What Russian leadership would have understood was a powerful response. … It required a proportional show of force to indicate to Russia that there will be no more taking of territories.”

Tillerson was completely committed to upholding U.S. commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which also bears big implications for the U.S.-Russia relationship. Trump has questioned the U.S. commitment to the organization, complaining that other nations do not contribute enough financially.

In contrast, Tillerson said, “The Article 5 commitment is inviolable, and the U.S. is going to stand behind that commitment.”

He also explicitly contradicted Trump’s past statements about nuclear proliferation. Trump said last year that “I’m not sure it would be a bad thing” if Japan obtained nuclear weapons, and made similar comments about South Korea and Saudi Arabia.

“Do you agree or disagree?” Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., asked Tillerson.

“I do not agree,” he replied.

And on China, Tillerson poured cold water on the idea that the U.S. might change its decades-long policy of not recognizing Taiwan as an independent country. Trump raised that possibility by calling the president of Taiwan in early December.

“I don’t know of any plans to alter the ‘one China’ position,” Tillerson said, referring to the decades-old U.S. approach to the island.

On the question of fighting terrorism, Tillerson said that the U.S. has to “win the war of ideas.”

“One of our greatest allies in this war is going to be the voices of moderate Muslims, the people of the Muslim faith who speak from their perspective and their rejection of that representation of what is otherwise a great faith,” Tillerson said.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., later thanked Tillerson for describing Islam as a “great faith.” But he expressed concern about Trump’s rhetoric toward Muslims.

“I think Islam hates us,” Trump said last year. And the man he chose to be his national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, has compared Islam to a “cancer.”

Tillerson’s weakest moments came when he was questioned about human rights. Sen. Marco Rubio pressed him to label Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal,” as well as about the human rights abuses by the governments in Saudi Arabia and the Philippines. Other senators, like Murphy and others, continued this line of questioning and were nonplussed at Tillerson’s refusal to agree with them.

Tillerson was clearly trying to avoid antagonizing governments he may not have met yet, at least as a representative of the U.S. government, and was at pains to explain himself.

“Our interests are not different, senator,” he said to Rubio, whose questions were some of the most hostile in tone of the day. “There seems to be some misunderstanding that somehow I see the world through a different lens. I do not.”

But, he said, “These are centuries-long cultures. … It doesn’t mean we can’t affect them to change. While the pace has been slow, slower than we would like, there is a change under way in Saudi Arabia. What I wouldn’t want to do is to take some kind of precipitous action that suddenly causes the leadership of Saudi Arabia to interrupt that. I’d like to have them continue to make that progress.”

It was one of the few times during the long hearing that Tillerson seemed to extend himself to try to get a point across. Most of the day he was cordial and responsive, but within limits. In his soft, deep Texan drawl, the 64-year-old former oil executive answered most questions ably but did at times become nonresponsive.

In particular, he went into bunker mode when Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., asked Tillerson whether he knew of “financial connections between President-elect Trump, the Trump family or Trump organizations and Russian individuals or organizations or the Russian government.”

“I have no knowledge,” he said in answer to that question, and repeated those words verbatim twice more.

When asked whether Exxon had concealed what it knew about climate change, or about its lobbying efforts against sanctions on Russia, Tillerson also refused to answer, repeatedly saying that the senators should ask Exxon about those issues.

“Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question, or are you refusing to do so?” Kaine said.

“A little of both,” Tillerson said, in a casual folksy tone, sparking laughter in the room.

But by the end of the day, even Democratic senators made comments indicating they expected Tillerson to be confirmed.

“Thank you for your fortitude and patience,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said as the hearing passed into its eighth hour. “It bodes well for what I think are the demands of service as secretary of state.”

But Coons also raised the concern that Trump would not tolerate Tillerson’s independence.

“You have a notable difference of view from at least some of the concerns based on some campaign statements by the president-elect: no ban on Muslims, no nuclear arms race, no nukes for Japan, South Korea or Saudi Arabia, no abandoning our NATO allies, no deal with Russia to accept the annexation of Crimea, stay engaged potentially in both the Iran agreement and Paris climate treaty. All of these to me are quite encouraging, but they suggest some tension with the president-elect,” Coons said.

“Just reassure me that you will stand up to the president when you disagree,” Coons added.

Tillerson did his best. “In my conversations with him … he’s been very open and inviting of hearing my views, and respectful of those views,” Tillerson said. “My sense is we’re going to have all these things on the table and everyone will be given an opportunity to express those and make their case, and then the president will decide.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., also wondered aloud whether Tillerson’s views would win the day in the Trump administration.

“What I want to know is which values are going to prevail,” she said.

It was Rubio who articulated some of the deepest reservations about Tillerson, arguing that America’s interests have been hindered in the past when it made its concern for democracy and human rights contingent on whether other countries could provide something in return.

“That cannot be who we are in the 21st century,” Rubio said.

Corker ended the hearing after eight full hours with an appeal to Rubio and others who had expressed concerns, asking senators to discuss these things in private without media there.

It could be interpreted as a mild rebuke to Rubio for playing to the TV cameras, but it was also an acknowledgement that Tillerson was trying to “make sure he’s not getting out over his skis” and to avoid getting on the wrong side of a president-elect “he doesn’t know that well yet.”

“Let’s really think about this. This is a very important decision,” Corker said. Trump, he said, comes into the presidency “without a great deal of background” in foreign policy and “for him to have someone who he has confidence in … helping him shape his views to me is something that is very very important.”


Trump Nominee Rex Tillerson Suggests Tough Line on Russia, But Won’t Commit on Sanctions

WASHINGTON—President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said the U.S. needs to aggressively confront Russian President Vladimir Putin while also negotiating with his government, but in his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday refused to commit the Trump administration to maintaining or significantly ratcheting up sanctions on Russia.

Mr. Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corp., signaled a surprisingly hawkish line toward Russia in some instances, pledging, for example, to provide lethal weaponry to Ukraine so it can defend itself against Russian forces that have moved to annex territory on the country’s eastern border.

In another break from Mr. Trump, he said mutual protections as agreed among members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should not be used as leverage to encourage allies to spend more on defense.

But the 64-year-old former energy executive drew the ire of some U.S. senators by refusing to commit on sanctions against Russia in retaliation for its destabilizing regional activities and its alleged hacking of U.S. institutions during the recent presidential election.

Lawmakers questioned whether Mr. Tillerson’s past business dealings with Russia while at Exxon Mobil—Mr. Putin awarded him Russia’s Order of Friendship in 2013— undercut his willingness to target Moscow’s finances, particularly in the energy sector. The long-serving executive said the Trump administration needs to review the efficacy of the sanctions and judge whether there might be better ways to try to constrain, or potentially woo, the Kremlin.

“Sanctions, in order to be implemented, do impact American business interests,” Mr. Tillerson said in response to questioning. “In protecting American interests.…sanctions are a powerful tool. Let’s design them well.…Let’s ensure those sanctions are applied equally.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), a former Republican presidential candidate, was among senators who pressed for a pledge from Mr. Tillerson to maintain long-term economic pressure on Russia. Mr. Tillerson declined repeatedly, citing the need to review the policy.

“Rex Tillerson’s hearing is troubling,” tweeted Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic Party’s leader in the Senate. “He declined to commit to maintaining the existing sanctions regime against Russia or to new sanctions.”

During hours of testimony, Mr. Tillerson took a hard line on China, warning that Beijing needed to do much more to help the U.S. roll back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

The nominee also said the administration would review the landmark nuclear agreement that the U.S. and world powers reached with Iran in 2015 to constrain its nuclear program. He questioned whether Tehran should be allowed to continue producing nuclear fuel as part of the agreement, a key concession Iran won during the negotiations that it has said it won’t renegotiate.

“What comes at the end of this agreement must be a mechanism that does in fact deny Iran the ability to develop a nuclear weapon and that means no uranium enrichment in Iran, no nuclear materials stored in Iran,” Mr. Tillerson said.

Mr. Tillerson questioned another landmark foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration: the normalization of relations with Cuba. The Texas native said the Trump administration would also review this policy, and suggested President Barack Obama didn’t push for enough political and economic change in Havana.

“Our recent engagement with the government of Cuba was not accompanied by any significant concessions on human rights,” Mr. Tillerson said. “We have not held them accountable for their conduct.”

Mr. Tillerson also drew questions on climate change, telling Sen. Tom Udall (D., N.M.) that while Mr. Trump has invited his views on the subject, “Ultimately, I’ll carry out his policies.”

Mr. Trump has said he would withdraw the U.S. from the 2016 Paris climate agreement that calls for all countries to enact domestic policies to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. Mr. Tillerson as CEO of Exxon has backed the deal.

Still, Mr. Tillerson rated climate change low among national security threats. “I don’t see it as the imminent national security threat as perhaps others do,” he said.

But issues related to Russia dominated the hearing in the wake of the charges last week by the U.S. intelligence community that Mr. Putin ordered the hacking of American political institutions during the election, likely to help defeat Hillary Clinton.
The issue of Russia became even more explosive this week due to the publication of a privately financed report containing unsubstantiated allegations that the Trump campaign conspired with the Kremlin to defeat Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Trump denied the allegations raised in the report. U.S. intelligence officials said they haven’t been able to corroborate any of the claims, but the issue was raised during the hearing.

Mr. Tillerson repeatedly said the U.S. needs to take a balanced approached toward the Kremlin, cooperating where it can but also preparing to push back. He charged the Obama administration with fueling the conflict with Moscow by failing to establish and firmly enforce boundaries to manage Russian actions.

“I found the Russians to be very strategic in their thinking, very calculated. The government of Russia has a plan. It’s a geographic plan,” Mr. Tillerson said. “If Russia doesn’t receive an adequate response, they will continue with that plan.”

Mr. Tillerson said that, subject to consultation with other national security officials in the incoming administration, he would support calls to give defensive weapons to Ukraine so the country can protect itself against any further Russian aggression.

The Obama administration has stopped short of providing lethal weaponry to Ukraine, instead choosing to provide the country primarily with nonlethal military aid and extensive training.

“I think it’s important for us to support them in their ability to defend themselves,” Mr. Tillerson said.

Mr. Tillerson contradicted Mr. Trump’s view, expressed last year, that the U.S. should consider recognizing Crimea as part of Russia. In an interview with ABC News last summer, Mr. Trump said he would “take a look at it,” noting that “the people of Crimea, from what I heard, would rather be with Russian than where they were.”

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