Trump’s Secretary of State pick Rex Tillerson appears before Senate for confirmation hearing

Rex Tillerson, Trump's pick for Secretary of State. (Photo credit: William Munoz via Flickr / Creative Commons)

Cabinet confirmation hearings continued on Capitol Hill Wednesday, with day two for Attorney General nominee, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions. Two hearings originally scheduled to begin today were postponed, but president-elect Donald Trump’s picks for Transportation Secretary – Elaine Chao – and Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson both got underway.

Tillerson has spent his entire career in the private sector, and until recently was CEO of ExxonMobil, a role that some lawmakers seemed to think did not prepare him for the job as the country’s top diplomat. FSRN’s Nell Abram has more.

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In opening remarks, Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Ben Cardin came out of the gate with challenges to longtime Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s qualifications to serve as U.S. Secretary of State – noting that the requirements of an ‘oilman’ seeking to maximize corporate profits are dramatically different from those necessary to conduct diplomacy as a “statesman.”

“Those who suggest that anyone who can run a successful business can of course run a government agency do a profound disservice to both,” Cardin said. “Serving the narrow market driven interests of Exxon share-holders is not the same as serving the national interests of all the American people.”

Tillerson began with a statement in which he said defeating ISIS must be the nation’s foremost priority in the Middle East, derided the diplomatic thaw in relations with Cuba, slammed relations with China, and called for a “clear-eyed” approach of open dialogue with Russia.

And he said that human rights begin with “moral clarity.”

“We do not face an either or choice on defending global human rights. Our values are our interest when it comes to human rights and humanitarian assistance. It is unreasonable to expect that every foreign policy endeavor will be driven by human rights considerations alone – especially when the security of the American people is at stake,” Tillerson said. “But our leadership demands actions specifically focused on improving the conditions of people the world over –utilizing both aid and where appropriate economic as instruments of foreign policy.”

As the hearing progressed, he faced a direct line of questioning about his ties to Russia and how they could color his foreign policy stance.

Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio pressed with questions on topics ranging from Russia’s role in bombing health care facilities in Syria, to the number of people critical of the Kremlin’s leadership who turn up dead, to allegations of Russian interference in the recent election.

“Would you advise the president-elect to repeal the Obama administration’s recent executive orders regarding cyber security and Russian interference in the 2016 elections?” Rubio asked.

But the former oil company executive who has had direct dealings with President Vladimir Putin, deep business ties with Russia’s state-run oil company, and has lobbied U.S. lawmakers with respect to economic sanctions that affected those deals, repeatedly avoided giving a direct answer.

“I think the president-elect had indicated, and if confirmed I would support is a comprehensive assessment of our cyber threat and cyber security policies,” Tillerson said.

Protesters repeatedly interrupted the proceedings, unfurling banners in the chamber and calling for lawmakers to reject Tillerson’s nomination. They were each quickly escorted out of the chamber.

When asked about his position on climate change, Tillerson again evaded direct answers. He deflected questions on a carbon tax by stating that as Secretary of State he would not be involved in tax considerations.

He did say that “the risk of climate change” exists, and the consequences could be serious enough that action should be taken. But when specifically asked about a human role in accelerating the process, he simply replied: “The increase of the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect – our ability to predict that effect is very limited.”

If confirmed, Tillerson pledged to recuse himself from matters involving ExxonMobil for a period of time as required by law, but said he would not do so beyond that.

He did however pledge to continue State Department programs designed to empower women around the world, but sidestepped committing to continued support for global family planning programs.

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