Sen. Jeff Merkley Voices Concerns Over Rex Tillerson's Nomination
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It was a long day for Rex Tillerson. He spent all day yesterday answering questions from lawmakers who are trying to figure out if the Texas oil man should be the next U.S. secretary of state.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, as the former CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson has close business ties with Russia and Vladimir Putin, which provoked an aggressive line of questioning from Republican Senator Marco Rubio.
MARTIN: We've got that rather pointed exchange here. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARCO RUBIO: Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?
REX TILLERSON: I would not use that term.
RUBIO: Well, let me describe the situation in Aleppo, and perhaps that will help you reach that conclusion. In Aleppo, Mr. Putin has directed his military to conduct a devastating campaign. He's targeted, schools, markets and other civilian infrastructure. It's resulted in the death of thousands of civilians.
So based on all this information and what's publicly in the record about what's happened in Aleppo and the Russian military, you are still not prepared to say that Vladimir Putin, his military, have violated the rules of war and have conducted war crimes in Aleppo.
TILLERSON: Now, those are very, very serious charges to make. And I would want to have much more information before reaching a conclusion. I understand there is a body of record in the public domain. I'm sure there's a body of record in the classified domain. And I think in order to deal with a serious question like this...
RUBIO: Mr. Tillerson, what's happened in Aleppo is in the public domain.
TILLERSON: ...I would want to be...
RUBIO: The videos and the pictures are there.
TILLERSON: ...Fully informed before advising the president.
INSKEEP: Here's one of the reasons we played you a lot of that recording. Senator Rubio hasn't said how he's going to vote on Tillerson, and since there are 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his support would be crucial.
MARTIN: Democrat Jeff Merkley also has a say on that committee. And he joins us in the studio this morning. Senator, welcome back to the program.
JEFF MERKLEY: Well, good morning, Rachel. Great to be with you.
MARTIN: What do you make of Rex Tillerson after listening to his testimony?
MERKLEY: Well, I came away with a tremendous amount of concern about his answers. I thought starting right off with what Marco Rubio was asking, Aleppo is one of the most tragic circumstances in the world. He wasn't prepared to answer it, and I raised a number of issues myself that - about Exxon's conduct when he was CEO. And there are - there, too, I found his answers insufficient.
INSKEEP: Can I just ask, though, Senator Merkley - he didn't denounce Vladimir Putin necessarily. He didn't denounce Duterte, the president of the Philippines who's in the middle of this violent anti-drug campaign. But is that just diplomacy, being diplomatic? The United States doesn't always criticize every horrible thing that happens in Saudi Arabia, for example.
MERKLEY: Well, take, for example, when he was asked about the Philippines, he said, I just need more information. It was as if he hadn't heard about this extensive strategy of just shooting down young men on the street without any type of due process. Our nation stands for due process.
At the beginning of his conversation with me in my office, he talked about the need to have policy based on moral clarity. But as instance after incident after incident was presented to him about the issues, there was no moral clarity. It was, I need more information, I'm not sure about that and so forth.
MARTIN: Although, Russia was a huge throughline in the hearing. And, you know, he took a different stance than the president-elect has taken, to some degree. I mean, at one point, he said he would have advocated for a more proportional response, a more aggressive response to Russia annexing Crimea. That seemed to please some of your Democratic colleagues.
MERKLEY: Yes, no, that's a point. He put that out there, and it was, in a way, important that he comment on this because we have a situation where our president-elect has placed himself in a very warm relationship with Russia. And he's nominated as secretary of state who, by all accounts, has had an extremely warm relationship with Russia.
And so for him to lay out a position, as he did, saying that he might be more aggressive when Russia violates the boundaries of a neighbor as they did then - but here's the thing. In that situation, we had extensive sanctions against Russia, and his company lobbied against them. And that's documented in the record. It's documented in the press reports. And then he said in front of...
MARTIN: We should say, he said that there is no evidence, to his understanding, that Exxon ever aggressively lobbied against sanctions.
MERKLEY: Well, that's exactly - that was the point I was going to make. He stood there and said, no, I never lobbied on it. My company didn't lobby. And yet the reports to Congress show that they spent millions of dollars lobbying on this issue.
INSKEEP: Senator, obviously you're not in a position to say whether the dossier containing alleged information about President-elect Trump is true or false, the thing that has so dominated discussion over the last couple of days. But let me back away from that.
You mentioned the president-elect's warm relations, as you described it, or effort to have warm relations with Russia. To what extent do you have confidence that this secretary of state, working for this president-elect would follow what you see as the interests of the United States and act independently?
MERKLEY: Well, I have a lot of concern about that. And that's partly why I was asking him about the circumstances in which his company had operated in the world. And we were trying to see if he could find a path and separate himself from that vision.
For example, I asked him about the treatment that Exxon had done in the country of Equatorial Guinea, in which they had channeled enormous amounts of money to the president's family instead of back to the people of the country. And the State Department has reported on this. And it was a perfect opportunity for him to be able to step in and make the case that we need to have a much stronger set of strategy for dealing with corruption in such nations. And I expected him actually to make a much stronger defense of the way the company had behaved. But I didn't hear it.
INSKEEP: This is a company that has a reputation for following whatever laws of whatever countries it is in around the world. You didn't find that too credible?
MERKLEY: Well, he did make the point. He said, we've been investigated, and we haven't been charged. We haven't been convicted. And yet he framed that after he had talked about the need for moral clarity, and there's so much more than just winning a lawsuit in terms of managing foreign policy.
MARTIN: Is there anything Rex Tillerson could say to sway you? Will you vote for him?
MERKLEY: I will not vote for him. This was his opportunity. I talked to him in my office. We spent all day yesterday talking with him, and what comes out of that is an individual who is lacking the breadth of perspectives and certainly the sense of moral kind of insight necessary to lead America on foreign policy in these troubled times.
MARTIN: U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from the state of Oregon. Senator Merkley, thank you so much for making the time.
MERKLEY: Oh, you're very welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIXIGA 70 SONG, "VENTANIA")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.