Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon CEO and President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, was grilled on Wednesday by Senate Democrats who challenged the former big oil executive on issues such as climate change. However, the most compelling questioning came from a Republican senator who many were surprised to see engage Tillerson with such a hardball line of questioning.
It was Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) who surprised a lot of people when he pressed Tillerson on specific answers to important questions related to his future job. However, the former big oil executive proved more slippery than the crude his old employer pumps from the earth. He gave the senator vague and incomplete answers as Rubio grew increasingly frustrated throughout the process. At one point, Tillerson told Rubio that he needed more facts, such as classified information, before he could give his thoughts on Putin and his regime’s complicity in war crimes and the murders of political enemies.
None of this is classified, Mr. Tillerson,” Rubio quipped. “These people are dead.”
Russia is expected to be the primary focus of Tillerson’s confirmation hearings, as the former Exxon CEO has strong business ties with the country. His ties included the near-completion of what was to be the biggest oil deal in history with the Russian government which was valued at $500 billion dollars. Tillerson was even awarded the “Order of Friendship” medal pinned on him by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. However, after Russia’s actions in Crimea and the Ukraine, President Barack Obama imposed stiff sanctions on Moscow which essentially killed Exxon’s deal. But now with Tillerson’s possible appointment, questions are being raised on whether or not the former oil executive plans to use his position and influence to help lift the sanctions and allow Exxon to reconstitute its deal.
While I do not suggest it was your intent, it is frankly not too great a distance from Exxon’s business partnerships to Putin’s Kremlin-controlled slush funds essential for his ‘disinformation’ campaigns around the world,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the committee’s top Democrat.
Rubio’s tough questioning poses a serious problem for Trump’s nominee, because as it exists today, the Foreign Relations Committee is comprised of 10 Democrats and 11 Republicans. Should Rubio decide to break ranks and vote against Tillerson, he would join a unified Democratic opposition thereby effectively killing Tillerson’s confirmation.
During a tense exchange, Rubio grilled Tillerson on whether he would counsel President-elect Trump to sign a bill which would impose heavy sanctions and visa restrictions on individuals believed to be involved in the cyber attacks against the U.S. during the 2016 campaign. Tillerson demurred stating that the president should be given the flexibility to include Russia’s relationship with the U.S. as a factor.
Giving the executive the tool is one thing,” Tillerson said. “Requiring the executive to use it without any other considerations, I would have concerns.”
However, Rubio was not impressed. The Florida senator labeled Tillerson’s response as “troubling” because the cyber attack was “a direct attack on our national security and our electoral process.”
Tillerson also declined to answer whether he would advise Trump to lift sanctions imposed by President Obama against several Russian officials believed to be directly linked to the attack by using an executive order.
Rubio isn’t what most people would consider an independent-thinking Republican. At one point during his 2016 presidential campaign Rubio was rumored to be the GOP establishment’s top candidate after former Florida Governor Jeb Bush fizzled into obscurity. But after losing his state to Trump by over 18 points, many people believed Rubio was finished in politics. That’s because the one-term senator vowed to vacate his seat when he started his campaign. But after the tragic Orlando nightclub shooting, Rubio found a new “calling” to serve his constituents once again as their U.S. Senator and decided to go back on his word not to run for his old seat.
Rubio somehow managed to reclaim his position, despite the fact that during the GOP presidential primaries, his opponents hammered him over his absentee record in the Senate. Politifact checked Rubio’s record and found that the Florida senator missed a whopping 41 percent of Senate votes between March 5, 2015, and March 3, 2016. From Politifact:
Rubio’s absentee rate of 41 percent puts him at the 100th percentile, which means that in the past year, he has had a worse voting record than every other sitting senator. In contrast, the Senate median absentee record for the past year is just 1 percent.
The former CEO’s answers also raised serious concerns among two other GOP Senators with reputations for being strong critics of Putin’s government. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are also raising serious questions about Tillerson’s nomination.
Here’s the full exchange between Rubio and Tillerson.
On Wednesday evening, Graham told reporters that he’s still undecided on whether or not he would confirm Tillerson’s nomination but he stated that the nominee’s response concerning sanctions and his inability to classify Putin as a war criminal was “a little unnerving.”
I’ve talked to [Tillerson], he gave pretty good answers so we’ll see,” Graham said. “I voted for all of Obama’s Cabinet officials. I want to support this president, but the Russia issue really matters to me. I don’t want to send a signal to Russia that somehow we’re going to be less than aggressive.”
Tillerson’s answer concerning the Russian sanctions also troubled Democrats, who said that it would send a dangerous message to America’s enemies.
To duck the question, and refuse to commit to continuing these sanctions is tantamount to sweeping Russia’s flouting of international norms under the rug,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said on the Senate floor at the same time as the hearing.
“It says, ‘Go ahead, interfere in our elections again. Nothing will happen to you,’” Schumer said. “It says the same to China, and Iran, and any other country that might try to hack.”
It looks like Trump’s most blatant and corrupt nomination could become his first serious failure as president. Let’s hope, for the sake of America’s future, that unqualified and compromised nominees like Tillerson are defeated before they can do real harm to America’s national security.
And for those worried about Tillerson’s future, his former employer Exxon Mobile has set aside a modest 175 million dollar trust for their former CEO. Of course, the payout probably has nothing to do with his possible appointment as Trump’s Secretary of State.
Because that would just be plain wrong, and if you can’t trust a multi-billion dollar oil company, who can you trust?
Featured image (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)