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.
Tillerson also faced – and mostly dodged – tough questions about his relationship with the Russian government. He has had a decades-long relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and received the Order of Friendship award from Putin in 2013.
Senators questioned the former oil executive about his views on Russia, the imposition of tougher sanctions for its interference in the 2016 U.S. election, and recent allegations that the Russians collected compromising intelligence on the president-elect.
When asked if he could execute foreign policy based on Trump’s worldviews, Tillerson told the committee he has not discussed Russia with the president-elect.
“Pretty amazing,” Menendez said in response.
Tillerson, who noted that he is waiting for his security clearance, said he reviewed the unclassified summary of the intelligence community’s report outlining Russian interference in the election, which alleges that Putin ordered an influence campaign intended to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Trump.
“That report is clearly troubling and indicates that all of the actions you just described were undertaken,” he said.
“If there is additional information that indicates the level of interference, it deserves a response,” he said later, when pressed by Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat.
Murphy also asked Tillerson about reports that surfaced Tuesday alleging that Moscow has cultivated compromising material on Trump.
Tillerson said he had not been briefed on the matter, and would leave it to the FBI and other intelligence agencies to decide whether they should investigate the accuracy of those reports.
When asked, Tillerson also denied the existence of any business deals between Exxon and Trump associates Carter Page and Paul Manafort, whose links to Moscow have been recently scrutinized.
Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, resigned from the campaign after relations with Trump soured. Allegations of his business ties to Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs have increased scrutiny on Trump’s fondness of Putin.
Sen. Marco Rubio – the only Republican on the committee who has publicly stated he might vote against Tillerson – doled out some of the toughest questions to the nation’s would-be top diplomat.
“Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal,” the Florida senator asked.
“I would not use that term,” Tillerson responded, adding that such a serious charge would require him to review more information before making that determination.
Tillerson added that he has insufficient information to agree with Rubio that Russian journalists, dissidents and political opponents have been targeted and murdered.
“People who speak out are often a threat,” he said. “These things happen to them.”
Tillerson added that he would want to deal with facts and sufficient information when advising the president-elect on such matters.
The oil mogul also faced some tough questions about his views on climate change. He said he believes the risk of climate change exists and could have serious consequences, but that debate remains about the best course of action to take.
When pressed to be more succinct, Tillerson said an increase in greenhouse gas concentrations are having an effect, but our ability to predict that effect is very limited.
Tillerson did say he believes it is important for the U.S. to maintain a seat at the table to address the threat of climate change, which requires a global response.
William Snape, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, said Tillerson lied when he said the consequences of climate change are unknowable.
“It is a lie and Rex knows it,” Snape said in an email after the hearing. “His own Exxon scientists predicted PRECISELY what today’s climate impacts would be over FIFTY YEARS AGO. This is the central finding of the huge cache of documents discovered during the #ExxonKnew campaign.”
Tillerson demurred when pressed by Sen. Tim Kane, a Virginia Democrat, to answer questions about Exxon’s funding of groups that challenge the consensus of the scientific community.
“Senator, since I’m no longer with Exxon,” Tillerson replied, “I’m in no position to speak on their behalf.”