Though former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson faced some sharp questions on climate change, the real clashes during his confirmation hearing for secretary of state came from neoconservative senators-principally Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ). Both demanded Tillerson accept their line on a number of issues.
Due to Tillerson’s former role, much of the press attention on his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee focused on Tillerson’s evasive answers on climate change.
As secretary of state, Tillerson will play a major role in negotiating (or sabotaging) international agreements on climate change. President-elect Donald Trump has openly declared his opposition to climate change agreements, even once claiming the entire issue was invented by the Chinese to undermine the economic competitiveness of the United States.
Senator Rubio, who has yet to commit to supporting Tillerson, continually pushed the former CEO to call Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal. Rubio urged Tillerson to affirm that Putin personally directed the alleged Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s emails.
Understandably, Tillerson demurred on calling the president of Russia a war criminal before he took a diplomatic post, which requires him to negotiate with Russia.
Rubio also promoted a rather ridiculous law that would tie the executive branch’s hands and make any and all acts of cyber warfare by a country automatically subject to sanctions. Tillerson said he would not support such a law, as it would remove flexibility in diplomatic negotiations which should be done on a country-by country basis.
Left unsaid was the fact that the U.S. is one of the leading offensive cyber warfare practitioners in the world. If such a law passed, it would not be long before numerous people associated with the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command found themselves sanctioned (along with numerous U.S. political leaders).
In fact, the famous U.S.-Israeli created Stuxnet/Operation Olympic Games virus ultimately made its way back to the United States, where it became a concern for the Department of Homeland Security. Would the U.S. sanction itself under this proposed law? Would NSA employees at Fort Meade have their bank accounts frozen?
Menendez joined Rubio in hammering Tillerson on his Russian connections and suggested Exxon Mobil was Russia’s de facto lobbyist in the U.S. by opposing sanctions in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. Tillerson claimed he had no personal knowledge of the corporation’s efforts against sanctions.
A subsequent fact-check by the Associated Press shows while it is not clear whether Tillerson himself was involved in lobbying on Russian sanctions there is “ample evidence,” Exxon Mobil lobbied to protect its interests in Russia when sanctions were being applied in 2014.
While the hearing was contentious at times, it appeared Tillerson held his own. The only thing that may stand in the way of his confirmation is if Rubio decides to vote against him.