WASHINGTON (CN) - Former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson dodged tough questioning Wednesday from the Senate in his quest to serve as secretary of state under President-elect Donald Trump.
Touting his background as an engineer, Tillerson told the Foreign Relations Committee that he follows facts and applies logic in all of his pursuits.
Such pronouncements did little, however, to satisfy senators who wanted to know how, after a 42-year career with Exxon, Tillerson will divest himself and pivot from serving his former business interests at Exxon to serving the American people.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., noted that Tillerson went against the Obama administration in overseeing a 2011 Exxon exploration deal with the Kurdish regional government in Iraq – a deal the White House believed might contribute to destabilizing the country.
In relation to this, questions also emerged about whether Tillerson and Exxon have actively lobbied against U.S.-led sanction regimes.
The example underscored concern about potential conflicts of interest that will prevent Tillerson from separating himself from his former business interests and successfully executing American foreign policy.
Tillerson assured Menendez that if confirmed he would serve and represent the interests of his new shareholders, the American people.
The Trump nominee also said under sworn testimony that neither he nor Exxon have ever lobbied against sanctions, contradicting numerous news reports that say Exxon did just that.
Menendez held up lobbying disclosure forms in a later round of questioning that indicate Exxon lobbied Congress on four specific sanctions-related bills: the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability Investment Act of 2010; the Russian Aggression Prevention Act of 2014; the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014; and the Stand for Ukraine Act.
Exxon's role in defeating the Stand for Ukraine Act was widely reported in the press.
"My understanding is that when you employee lobbyists and you submit lobbying forms under the law you are taking a position," Menendez said. "Is that not true?"
Tillerson then asked if the forms indicate whether Exxon lobbied for or against the sanctions.
"I know you weren't lobbying for the sanctions," Menendez responded.
"I think that's a description of the subject discussed, but I haven’t seen the forms," Tillerson said.
"You don't need a lobbying disclosure form to simply seek information and clarification about a bill," Menendez said.
"There was lobbying here," Menendez added.
The lawmaker moved on, opting not to force the issue, but Tillerson was still Exxon’s CEO at the time Menendez claimed the lobbying occurred.
Tillerson told the committee earlier that he would recuse himself from any issues related to Exxon. But as Sen. Edward Markey noted, the statutory recusement period expires after a year. When asked directly if he would recuse himself for the duration of his service, Tillerson did not give a yes or no answer.
Instead, he said he would honor the one-year statutory recusal and would seek guidance from the appropriate ethics body advising State Department employees after that.