Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson had a tense confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, clashing even with Republican members over his views on Russia, international human rights violations and the lobbying and deal-making of Exxon Mobil when he was CEO.
The 64-year-old was an unconventional pick for President-elect Donald Trump, having no former government service but plenty of international business experience. It's that work with foreign governments, particularly Russia, that's come under scrutiny. In 2013, the Kremlin awarded Tillerson the Russian "Order of Friendship."
Predictably, many of the committee's questions had to do with Tillerson's views on how he would deal with Russia. Trump has expressed unusual admiration for the country and its president, Vladimir Putin, and openly desired a better relationship, even as U.S. intelligence has found that the country engaged in cyberattacks to meddle in the U.S. elections.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., had particularly sharp questions for Tillerson and sounded at times like he could be leaning toward opposing Tillerson's nomination. At several points during Tillerson's testimony, committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., interjected to try to help clarify his answers.
Here are top moments from the nine-hour hearing:
1. Rubio vs. Tillerson on Russia, Putin
Aggressively pushed by Rubio in his initial round of questioning, Tillerson wouldn't label Putin as a war criminal over the Russian military's alleged involvement in the Syrian civil war in targeting and killing civilians.
"Those are very, very serious charges to make and I'd want to have much more information before reaching that conclusion," Tillerson said. He also wouldn't say whether he believes the Kremlin is behind the killing of journalists and Putin critics, saying he would need to see more classified information to make a determination.
In a second round, Rubio pushed him on whether he viewed the Philippines and its president, Rodrigo Duterte, as human rights violators, but Tillerson dismissed news reports on atrocities there and in Saudi Arabia and its treatment of women. Citing his background as an engineer, Tillerson pushed back, saying he would simply need more information to make such a broad pronouncement and that, "I'm going to act on factual information. I'm not going to act on what people write about in the newspapers."
"My interests are the same as yours. Our interests are not different, senator," Tillerson told Rubio. "There seems to be some misunderstanding that I see the world through a different lens. I do not. I share all the same values you share and want the same things, the world over, in terms of freedom."
2. Breaks with Trump on Russia, intelligence
But overall, Tillerson still sounded a more hawkish tone against Russia than the incoming commander in chief he would serve.
"We aren't likely to ever be friends. ... Our value systems are starkly different," Tillerson said of Russia, adding that, "we need to move Russia from being an adversary always to being a partner sometimes."
The idea that Tillerson was in a unique position to be an intermediary to the country and smooth over relations, while also projecting U.S. strength and ideals, was something that witnesses speaking in support of his confirmation told the committee in introductory remarks. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who served in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, called Tillerson the "right person at the right time" to work on U.S.-Russia relations. Former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., an advocate of nuclear nonproliferation, said Tillerson's past business relationships with Russia and with Putin were "assets, not liabilities."
Tillerson also sounded a different tone from Trump on how he would have dealt with Russian aggression into Crimea.
"That was a taking of territory that was not theirs," Tillerson said, adding that he would have recommended that Ukraine use its military assets to line up along the eastern border and that the U.S. and NATO should have also helped with supplies and air surveillance. Russia would have understood and responded to such a "powerful response," Tillerson said.
Asked whether he believed U.S. intelligence reports that Russia was involved in cyberattacks intended to meddle in the U.S. elections, Tillerson said he had not seen the classified information but that the public report "clearly is troubling." He said it was a "fair assumption" that Putin was directly involved.
3. Tillerson opposes Muslim ban, supports TPP
There were two more big breaks from Tillerson with his future boss. When asked about a potential ban on Muslims coming into the U.S., which Trump proposed during the campaign, Tillerson said he did "not support a blanket-type rejection of any particular group of people." And he also rejected the idea of any type of registry of Muslims in the U.S. too, saying, "[You] would need to have a lot more information on how such an approach would even be constructed."
He also said he didn't oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which Trump frequently railed against on the campaign trail and has pledged to abandon. On the Paris climate accord, Tillerson said the U.S. would be "better served by being at that table than leaving that table"; Trump has said he would pull the deal.
4. Tillerson's muddled positions on sanctions and Exxon Mobil's lobbying
The would-be chief diplomat was pressed multiple times on whether he believed in the efficacy of sanctions, especially when it came to Russia. As with Crimea, he said he believed there needed to be additional consequences, backing some type of military action along the border.
But he also said that "[when sanctions] are imposed, they, by their design, are going to harm American businesses," although he did admit that they could be a "powerful and important tool."
He said that at Exxon he had never personally lobbied against sanctions and that the oil company "to my knowledge" had never "directly lobbied" against sanctions. However, Politico reported last month that Exxon Mobil had in fact lobbied against a bill that would have made it harder for Trump to lift sanctions against Russia.
After that admission, Democrats entered into the record evidence of the oil company's registration to lobby on the sanctions, but Tillerson maintained he still had no knowledge of the actions.
"Were we lobbying for the sanctions or lobbying against the sanctions?" he asked Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., during one line of questioning.
"I know you weren't lobbying for the sanctions," Menendez replied, incredulously.
Tillerson later said that the company had "participated in understanding how the sanctions are going to be constructed" in Russia, and his former company later tweeted out a statement to back that up.
On other issues of what Exxon Mobil had engaged in — a company where he worked for 40 years — Tillerson also said he didn't recall whether it had done business with Iran, Syria and Sudan.
5. Climate change
Tillerson also expressed his belief in climate change, but he wouldn't answer whether he believed humans were contributing to it.
"The risk of climate change does exist and the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken," Tillerson said. But asked by Corker whether it was worsened by human activity, Tillerson demurred, saying that "the increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect" but that the "ability to predict that effect is very limited."
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., his party's nominee for vice president against Trump, also pushed Tillerson on reports that Exxon Mobil had misled the public over climate change. Tillerson initially dodged, but Kaine pushed on: "Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question or are you refusing to answer my question?"
"A little of both," Tillerson quipped.