WASHINGTON – Barraged by questions about Russia, Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state promised a far more muscular approach toward the Kremlin on Wednesday, abandoning much of the president-elect’s emphasis on improving ties between the Cold War foes. Instead, Rex Tillerson suggested the outgoing Obama administration responded too softly to Moscow’s takeover of Ukrainian territory.
The surprising shift in tone by Tillerson, a former Exxon Mobil CEO and Russian “Order of Friendship” recipient, reflected the difficulty Trump will have in convincing Democrats and Republicans to broach a broad rapprochement with President Vladimir Putin’s government. Calling Russia a “danger” to the United States, Tillerson said he would keep U.S. sanctions in place and consider new penalties related to Russian meddling in the presidential election.
Although he said he hadn’t read last week’s classified assessment by the U.S. intelligence community, Tillerson said it was a “fair assumption” that Putin would have ordered the operation that purportedly included hacking, propaganda and internet trolls to harm Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and advance Trump’s. But in a puzzling revelation, the oil man conceded he hadn’t yet talked with Trump about a Russia policy.
“Russia today poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests,” Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He added that Trump’s administration would be committed to the defense of America’s NATO partners, an obligation the president-elect called into question during the campaign if allies failed to meet defense spending pledges.
While his prepared statement reflected some of Trump’s desire for improved ties, Tillerson quickly pivoted under pressure from both sides of the aisle. On Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimea region, he said, “That was a taking of territory that was not theirs.”
Still, he criticized President Barack Obama’s sanctions on Russia, which ended up costing Exxon hundreds of millions of dollars. And he declared that he would have responded by urging Ukraine to send all available military units to its eastern border with Russia and recommending U.S. and allied support through defensive weapons and air surveillance, to send a message to Moscow.
“That is the type of response that Russia expects,” he said in a response to questions from Sen. Marco Rubio, Tillerson’s toughest GOP inquisitor. “If Russia acts with force,” Tillerson said, “they require a proportional show of force.”
Trump offered a sharply different account of Ukraine during the presidential campaign and never proposed a show of U.S. military force in Ukraine. In an August interview, he claimed Russia would not enter Ukraine, not seeming to know Russian troops were already there. He suggested Crimea didn’t count because the peninsula’s people preferred being part of Russia, restating Putin’s reason for taking the territory in 2014.
Like Trump, Tillerson vowed complete support for Israel, which he called America’s “most important ally” in the Middle East. He said the new administration would undertake a full review of the Iran nuclear deal to deny the Islamic republic the ability to acquire an atomic weapon. He said that might only be possible if Iran can no longer enrich uranium, which the accord permits under strict constraints and without which Tehran wouldn’t have made the deal.
Some of the questioning reflected the traditional friction between a Congress that wants to prescribe foreign policy and an executive branch that traditionally seeks to maintain broad flexibility in its international affairs, tinted by Tillerson’s vocal opposition to economic sanctions as a business leader.
Addressing some of Congress’ most experienced architects of U.S. economic pressure, Tillerson called sanctions “a powerful tool” in deterrence that could, however, also project weakness if applied poorly.
He said neither he nor Exxon had lobbied against sanctions. But the company did try to influence sanctions legislation on Russia two years ago, congressional records and data from the Center for Responsive Politics show, and Tillerson made numerous White House visits, to no avail. Given a second chance on the subject, Tillerson sought to clarify his answer by saying he had expressed concerns related to security in shutting down an Exxon operation newly prohibited under the sanctions.
TIllerson represents a break in a longstanding tradition of secretaries of state with extensive military, legislative, political or diplomatic experience. Yet his supporters point to Tillerson’s lengthy career as a senior executive in a mammoth multinational company as proof he has the management and negotiating skills to succeed in the State Department’s top post, particularly when facing tough foreign governments.
“It’s brilliant what he’s doing and what he’s saying,” Trump said of Tillerson during a news conference in New York that occurred as Tillerson was testifying. “He ran incredibly Exxon Mobil. When there was a find, he would get it.”
His Exxon experience, however, has been criticized by Democrats for possible conflicts of interest because of the company’s far-flung business dealings. Tillerson, who stepped down as CEO at the end of 2016, said he understood being secretary of state meant different responsibilities. He pledged to be a steward for U.S. national interests rather than corporate ones.
Tillerson said he favored maintaining current U.S. sanctions against Russia for now and that NATO allies were right to be alarmed by Moscow’s growing aggression.
But Tillerson’s support for a more assertive policy toward Russia than Trump has espoused was tempered by his refusal to commit to support maintaining Obama’s executive order authorizing additional sanctions against Moscow because of its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Tillerson also refused to call President 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 during the Senate confirmation hearing interrupted sporadically by protesters opposed to his nomination.
He later said, “I would recommend maintaining the status quo until we are able to engage with Russia and understand better what their intentions are.”
Tillerson said at other points during the hearing that U.S. sanctions disrupted American business overseas.
Some of Tillerson’s answers may reassure skeptical Republicans and Democrats concerned that Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, will act on his stated aim to improve ties with Russia by revoking all, or some, sanctions against Moscow.
On another contentious matter, Tillerson said he would recommend a “full review” of the nuclear deal with Iran reached with the United States and other world powers, but 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 nuclear deal and at one point threatened to dismantle it.
Tillerson also faced questions on climate change, China’s response to North Korean missile tests and whether he would be able to make unbiased decisions after a long career at Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest publicly traded oil producer.
Bob Corker, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said he expects the Republican-controlled Senate will easily confirm Tillerson, 64.
Republican Sen. Rubio pushed him hard on whether he believed Putin was a war criminal, specifically referring to Russia’s military actions in support of Syria’s government in the lengthy Syrian civil war.
“I would not use that term,” Tillerson said.
“Those are very, very serious charges to make and I would want to have much more information before reaching a conclusion,” Tillerson added.
Rubio, who ran unsuccessfully 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. I find it discouraging, your inability to cite that which I think is globally accepted.”
Tillerson was also grilled on his views about climate change.
“The risk of climate change does exist and the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken,” he said, but he dodged a direct question about whether he believed that human activity was a cause of climate change.
Tillerson did not answer yes or no, but said, “The increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our abilities to predict that effect are very limited.”
His hearing came at a time of fraught ties with Russia. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia was behind the hacks of American political figures in an effort to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in the Nov. 8 election. Moscow has denied the allegations.
In another revelation, also denied by Moscow, two U.S. officials said on Tuesday classified documents that the heads of four U.S. intelligence agencies presented last week to Trump included claims that Russian intelligence operatives have compromising information about him. Trump dismissed the reports, first made by CNN, as “fake news.”
Tillerson 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.
However, later Tillerson acknowledged expressing his view that sanctions on Russia over Crimea would be ineffective, and said he had personally spoken to U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew regarding gaps between American and European sanctions on Russia.
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy vigorously challenged Tillerson’s statement that he did not lobby against the sanctions, saying that calling a U.S. senator to express concerns over the measures “likely constitutes lobbying.”
Exxon aggressively lobbied Congress on Iran sanctions in 2010, meeting numerous time with legislators, according to regulatory filings. The oil giant’s lobbyists discussed not only U.S. sanctions on the Middle Eastern country, but also energy investments, trade and energy security there, according to the filings.
It is not immediately clear how much was spent on those lobbying efforts, as specific dollar amounts are not broken down in filings. In the first quarter of 2010, for example, the company spent $4.1 million to lobby Congress on myriad issues, including not only Iran, but also chemical, environmental and credit card-related issues.
In 2014 and 2015, Exxon lobbied Congress regarding sanctions against Russia following the annexation of Crimea. The lobbying directly related to energy matters, according to regulatory filings, which did not elucidate on which specific energy topics. Exxon has a large business in Russia and has said it would like to expand further there.
Tillerson also said the NATO alliance’s mutual defense guarantee, Article 5, is inviolable.