Rex Tillerson Questioned About Trump's Ties To Russia In Confirmation Hearing

Jan 11, 2017
Originally published on January 11, 2017 5:26 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Three of President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet picks were on Capitol Hill today for confirmation hearings. For Rex Tillerson, it's been an all-day affair with Russia as the dominant theme. Tillerson is the newly retired ExxonMobil CEO who's been tapped for secretary of state. Senators are pressing him about his past business dealings with Russia and what he thinks about Russia's meddling in U.S. elections. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: As ExxonMobil's CEO, Tillerson managed to navigate a difficult business environment in Russia, doing deals with companies close to Vladimir Putin. So it was no surprise senators were going to press him on that. The ranking Democrat, Ben Cardin, set the tone.

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BEN CARDIN: Recent news accounts indicate Russia may well have information about Mr. Trump, and they could use that to compromise our presidency. It cannot be business as usual.

KELEMEN: Tillerson tried to reassure the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he's clear-eyed about Russia. He sees the value of U.S. sanctions, some of which got in the way of ExxonMobil's dealings in Moscow when he ran the energy giant. He says if confirmed as secretary of state, he will have a, quote, "frank and open dialogue with Russia."

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REX TILLERSON: We need to move Russia from being an adversary always to a partner at times. And on other issues, we're going to be adversaries.

KELEMEN: Tillerson says he understands that NATO allies are alarmed by Russia's actions in Ukraine, but he argues it was a lack of American leadership that left open the door to a resurgent Russia. That raised the question, what would he have done differently after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula?

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TILLERSON: I would have recommended that the Ukraine take all of its military assets it had available, put them on that eastern border, provide those assets with defensive weapons that are necessary just to defend themselves, announce that the U.S. is going to provide them intelligence and that there will - either NATO or U.S. will provide air surveillance over that border to monitor any movements.

KELEMEN: He says Kremlin leaders would have gotten the message. Florida Republican Marco Rubio tried to get Tillerson to go further and call Vladimir Putin a war criminal for Russia's bombardment of the Syrian city of Aleppo.

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MARCO RUBIO: It should not be hard to say that Vladimir Putin's military has conducted war crimes in Aleppo because it is never acceptable, you would agree, for a military to specifically target civilians, which is what's happened there through the Russian military. And you know, I find it discouraging - your inability to cite that which I think is globally accepted.

KELEMEN: Tillerson says he will deal with the facts, and at the moment, he doesn't have information to make that determination. The plain-talking Texan seemed unflappable sitting silently each time environmental activists were dragged out of the hearing room.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oil is dead, and people will not stop. Senators, be brave. Stop this man.

KELEMEN: Tillerson wasn't making any promises that the U.S. would continue to abide by the Paris climate change agreement. But he says Trump has asked him for his views on that.

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TILLERSON: The increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.

KELEMEN: Rex Tillerson spent his entire career at Exxon and is trained as an engineer. He says he will follow the facts where they lead. He had few facts on hand, though, when Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine pressed him on suspected financial ties between the Trump Organization and Russian officials.

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TILLERSON: I have no knowledge.

TIM KAINE: And if I asked you the same question, and I substituted Turkey, China, Pakistan or Japan for Russia in that question, would your answer be the same?

TILLERSON: I have no knowledge.

KAINE: So I gather from your answer that you'll then have no way of knowing how actions proposed by a President Trump regarding those countries or others would affect his personal or family financial interests.

TILLERSON: I have no knowledge.

KELEMEN: And he downplayed Kaine's suggestion that as America's top diplomat, he could have to negotiate with leaders who know more about Trump's financial exposures than he does. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.