Rex Tillerson, Pick for Secretary of State, Breaks with Trump on Key Issues

The oilman struggled to lend coherence to Trump’s foreign policy, but did reveal their differences on Russia, climate change, nukes and more.

WASHINGTON - JANUARY 20:  ExxonMobil Corporation Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson testifies during a hearing before the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee January 20, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The subcommittee held a hearing to examine the merger of ExxonMobil and XTO.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - JANUARY 20: ExxonMobil Corporation Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson testifies during a hearing before the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee January 20, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The subcommittee held a hearing to examine the merger of ExxonMobil and XTO. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Testifying before lawmakers Wednesday, former ExxonMobil boss Rex Tillerson attempted to lend coherence to President-elect Donald Trump’s vision of foreign policy, a doctrine that has confused both Republicans and Democrats as it veers from hawkish military interventionism to dovish isolationism. Ultimately, Tillerson ended up revealing important differences between him and Trump on issues ranging from Russia to NATO to climate change.

Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee just hours after the publication of an unverified dossier purporting to show that Russia had compromising information on the president-elect. He faced his toughest questions when it came to the president-elect’s warm outlook on Russia, and his own cozy ties to the Kremlin while an oil executive.

In some important ways, Tillerson appeared to break with Trump’s positions. He said U.S. intelligence findings that Russia meddled in the election are “clearly troubling,” and suggested that Putin directly ordered the hacking of Democratic Party emails. He denounced Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, said the peninsula belongs to Ukraine, and said the United States should have sent Kiev military aid (Trump’s aides reportedly stripped military support for Ukraine from the Republican Party platform in July). He also supported existing economic sanctions on Russia, though he said they can hurt U.S. businesses. When asked about Trump’s comments that it wouldn’t be “so bad” if South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Japan obtained nuclear weapons, Tillerson said “I do not agree.” 

It’s not clear how much leeway Tillerson will have to shape the administration’s foreign policy. He, like Trump, has no experience in government. And the Trump administration has plenty of cooks stirring its foreign-affairs broth, including several retired generals. The putative secretary of state, who could take office next week, acknowledged that he has not discussed Russia with the president-elect, which Sen. Bob Menendez (D.-N.J.) called “amazing.”

Tillerson’s answers were not aggressive enough for longtime Russia hawks such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R.-Fla.), who pressed the oilman to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. Tillerson declined to condemn the Kremlin’s treatment of dissidents, and wavered when Rubio pressed him to denounce the Russian military’s indiscriminate slaughter in the Syrian city of Aleppo.

“Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?” Rubio asked.

“I would not use that term,” Tillerson said.

“The videos and pictures are there,” Rubio said. “It should not be hard to say that Vladimir Putin’s military has conducted war crimes in Aleppo.”

When Tillerson refused to capitulate, saying he’d like more information from intelligence officials before making a declaration, Rubio made clear his disappointment. “I find it discouraging, your inability to cite that,” he said.

Tillerson’s performance appeared to leave many Democrats unsatisfied, but won the support of most Republicans on the committee. A notable Republican skeptic is Rubio, whose vote will be crucial on a committee where Republicans outnumber Democrats by just one. If a majority of lawmakers on the committee oppose his nomination, it could then be referred unfavorably to the Senate floor, a move that would damage his chances for final confirmation.

During the hearing, Sen. Bob Corker (R.-Tenn.) threw an occasional lifeline to the nominee, allowing Tillerson to restate comments in a way that would be more suitable to Republicans and Democrats skeptical of his business ties to Russia. Corker, a Trump ally and chairman of the committee, had been on Trump’s short list for for secretary of state until the real estate mogul sided with the Texas oilman.

Corker, and other Republican senators such as Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, sought to defend Tillerson’s extensive business ties to Russia as an asset for America’s top diplomat. “That kind of perspective is sorely needed,” Johnson said.

Some of Tillerson’s views dovetailed with those of his soon-to-be-boss. He stressed the threat posed by Islamic State, and said that defeating the terror group should be the top U.S. priority in the Middle East. He also took aim at other Islamist foes, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. He also criticized China’s land grab in the South China Sea. When asked about Trump’s proposed registry for Muslims in America, he did not rule out support for it. 

Trump has said that the United States spends too much time telling other countries what to do when it comes to human rights. Tillerson told senators that human rights advocacy is important, but it can not be the sole U.S. concern “especially when the security of the American people is at stake.”

“I think it’s brilliant, what he’s saying,” Trump said of Tillerson’s testimony during his own press conference Wednesday.

But on other issues beyond Russia, Tillerson staked out a line at odds with many of Trump’s campaign-trail speeches and Republican orthodoxy. In a move that could draw criticism from the GOP, Tillerson expressed support for the millions of dollars the U.S. spends on family planning programs abroad. “I think that’s an important level of support,” he told Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.

Tillerson also showed strong support for humanitarian aid programs, including efforts to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa. The U.S. emergency plan for AIDS relief, he said, “clearly has been one of the most extraordinarily successful programs in Africa,” he said. “I saw it up close and personal.”

Tillerson urged more pressure on North Korea and expressed skepticism about China’s willingness to help pressure Pyongyang to denuclearize. We should “not get overly optimistic as to how far they’ll go,” he said. That view contrasts with Donald Trump’s notion that “China should solve that problem for us.”

Tillerson also broke with the president-elect on climate change, which Trump has called a “hoax” carried out by the Chinese. Tillerson told senators that “the risk of climate change does exist and the consequences could be serious enough that actions should be taken.” While he said the United States should “have a seat at the table” in international climate negotiations, he stopped short of endorsing — as Exxon has — the Paris climate pact aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Later on in the hearing, however, he noted that climate science is “not conclusive.” 

During his run for the White House, Trump routinely criticized recent U.S. military interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria. In his prepared testimony, Tillerson echoed that view, but also made clear he believed in a strong U.S. presence around the world.

“In some instances, we have withdrawn from the world,” Tillerson said. “In others, we have intervened with good intentions but did not achieve the stability and global security we sought. Instead, we triggered a host of unintended consequences and created a void of uncertainty.”

During the campaign, Trump also rattled U.S. NATO allies when he said the U.S. might not come to their defense if they don’t pay enough for their own defenses. In a delicate balancing act Tillerson said both Washington and its allies must uphold previous commitments.

“We must hold ourselves accountable to upholding the promises we make to others,” he said. “We must hold our allies accountable to commitments they make.”