Rex Tillerson’s testimony at last week’s Senate confirmation hearing for secretary of state offered some relief for those worried about a foreign policy meltdown under Donald Trump.
The former Exxon Mobil CEO got a bipartisan grilling about his close ties to top Russian leaders. Senators wanted to know if Tillerson could pivot from pursuit of oil in the Russian Arctic to protecting U.S. interests from a hostile Kremlin.
Not all his answers were clear. But he came across as well-informed and serious (in comparison with the president-elect’s performance at a press conference in New York City). Most surprising, his positions often failed to track with those of Trump, including on Russia.
Will Trump even listen to Tillerson’s advice? Nobody knows.
There was good reason why members of the Senate Foreign Relations committee gave Tillerson such a grilling. His close relationships with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and with Putin’s key ally, the much-feared Igor Sechin, led to a half-billion-dollar joint venture for Exxon Mobil in the Russian Arctic. In 2013, Putin bestowed the Order of Friendship on Tillerson.
In June 2014, after Russia had seized Crimea and was attacking eastern Ukraine, Tillerson was schmoozing with Sechin at an oil conference in Moscow. So senators wanted to know whether Tillerson would support continuing the sanctions imposed on Moscow for its Ukraine aggression — including sanctions on Sechin and the Rosneft state oil company he heads.
The senators also wanted to know if Tillerson backed Putin’s claim that Russia was legally entitled to annex Crimea. Trump has indicated he’d consider that claim and might drop the sanctions.
“No, Russia does not have legal claim to Crimea,” Tillerson replied.
He insisted Exxon had never lobbied to end sanctions over Ukraine, only to get a brief reprieve so they could wind up their Arctic-drilling operation. He also insisted he supported sanctions so long as they did not unduly penalize U.S. companies over European competitors. “Sanctions are an important tool,” he added.
Where things really got interesting, however, was when Tillerson laid out why the Obama team should have responded more firmly to Russia’s invasion of Crimea.
Russia, he says, has a long-term geographical plan to reestablish what it sees as its role in the world order. “If they don’t receive a response, they will execute the next step of that plan,” Tillerson said.
Will Tillerson be able to persuade his boss to look at the big strategic picture? Will the oilman be able to convince Trump that Putin’s flattery is meant as manipulation? Tillerson appears able to put Kremlin “friendships” into proper perspective, but we'll have to see.
Even GOP legislators grasped the challenge. Sen. Todd Young (R.-Ind.) asked how the secretary-designate would ensure that “the legs were not cut out from under him” by Trump tweets when he was visiting foreign capitals.
“It would be my expectation,” Tillerson delicately replied, “that any way the president chose to communicate would facilitate the policy we’d agreed on.”
“Any contingency plan?” Young asked. Tillerson held up his cell phone and replied, “I have his number and he’s promised to answer.”
“Let’s hope for the best,” said Young.