“Tillerson had a rockier time—tough questioning from both sides of the aisle,” acknowledged Duke University professor Peter Feaver, who worked on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Tillerson broke with Trump on numerous issues, including the belief in man-made climate change, whether it would be good for South Korea and Japan to have nuclear weapons, and the viability of a registry for American Muslims. Tillerson admitted he’d so far only discussed global affairs in general terms with Trump and specifically cited a lack of dialogue on either Syria or Russia—the most frequent topic of the hearing.
The secretary of state nominee declined to recuse himself from State Department matters related to Exxon Mobil beyond the required one-year period, dismaying Democrats, but it was human rights that proved to be a continual stumbling block: Tillerson justified Exxon’s business activity in Equatorial Guinea, despite egregious corruption in the country, because the company “didn’t break any laws.” He wouldn’t label Saudi Arabia a human rights abuser. He wouldn’t denounce Rodrigo Duterte, the Filipino president who has bragged about thousands of extrajudicial killings. He declined to call Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal.
Tillerson frequently cited his lack of security clearance to access information as the reason he couldn’t make such judgments, but his sharpest critic, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., argued sufficient information is already public: “Mr. Tillerson, what’s happened in Aleppo is in the public domain,” Rubio insisted. “It should not be hard to say Vladimir Putin has committed war crimes in Aleppo.”
In playing the part of a cautious Southern gentleman, Tillerson came across as someone whose confirmation was merely a formality, yet Republicans hold only a one-seat advantage on the Foreign Relations Committee—meaning it would take just one skeptical GOP member combining with the panel’s Democrats to deliver a stinging rebuke to Trump.
Republicans could bring Tillerson’s nomination to the floor without approval from the committee, but as few as two Republicans could derail a nominee, since Sessions has pledged not to vote for himself or other Cabinet picks. Sens. Rubio, Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and James Lankford, R-Okla., all expressed lingering concerns over Tillerson.
Tillerson assured the committee he views aid as a key foreign policy lever and would use it, when possible, to persuade countries to follow through on their commitments. Although he did not offer details, he said, “Our leadership demands action specifically focused on improving the conditions of people the world over, utilizing both aid and economic sanctions.”
Lawmakers repeatedly pushed Tillerson on sanctions, given his past statements that they’re ineffective and given claims that Exxon tried to work around them in countries such as Iran. Tillerson said he’d never lobbied against sanctions and called them an “important, powerful tool,” when used well.
Tillerson’s remarks suggested he sees the world through the lens of law: He cited Obama’s policy changes with Cuba as inconsistent with the earlier embargo passed by Congress, so he vowed to target them for reversal. He said the United States made NATO commitments, so he would advise using force, if necessary, to defend Baltic states from Russian aggression.
Where law wouldn’t bind him, Tillerson didn’t want to make concrete statements that would tie his hands. When pressed on Duterte, he noted the Philippines as a longtime ally. When pressed on Saudi Arabia—a country where he’s done extensive business—he said he didn’t know if labeling it a human rights abuser would be helpful.
Former Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, who spent 32 years in the U.S. foreign service, told me Tillerson’s approach was the right one, saying he needed to “maintain maximum flexibility when everyone wants him to sign off publicly on their agenda, pet project, or crusade.” (Fernandez, the U.S. ambassador to Equatorial Guinea from 2010 to 2012, also said Exxon Mobil exercised a “very high level of moral behavior and outstanding corporate social responsibility” when doing business in the oil-rich African country.)
Despite the hearing’s focus on human rights, in nine hours of testimony no one probed Tillerson on his tenure as national president of the Boy Scouts of America—where he pushed for policy changes lifting the ban on openly gay scouts—or on what level of priority he would put on LGBT rights as secretary of state. Under President Barack Obama, the State Department elevated LGBT issues to “the core of our commitment to human rights,” created the first LGBT special envoy, and funneled millions of dollars to various causes through the Global Equality Fund. Critics said the elevation of gay rights often came at the expense of traditional human rights, including unprecedented slaughters of Christians, Yazidis, and Shiite Muslims.
Religious themes went largely untouched at the hearing, despite the growing belief that secularization may be the biggest problem at the State Department—which promotes “non-sectarianism” and continues to insist religion is not related to terrorism.
Still, the lines of questioning on international human rights showed how high a hurdle Tillerson needed to clear in order to become the next secretary of state—and, if confirmed, where he could clash with fellow conservatives.
“We need clarity,” Rubio told Tillerson. “We can’t achieve moral clarity with rhetorical ambiguity. … We need a secretary of state who will fight for these principles.”
In 2013 Senate Democrats changed long-standing rules so it would take only a simple majority vote to approve Cabinet nominees, rather than the previous 60-vote threshold. That change increases the odds Trump’s picks will earn confirmation, but it’s not unprecedented for a president’s own party to scuttle a nominee.
In 1989, conservative activist Paul Weyrich, co-founder of The Heritage Foundation, led a successful effort to block John Tower, George H.W. Bush’s nominee for secretary of defense, over accusations of drunkenness and womanizing.
Democrats say they plan to stage significant resistance to eight of Trump’s nominees. They would need Republican help to succeed on an outright rejection, but stalling tactics have also proved effective in the past. In 2001, Democrats waged a bitter, five-week battle over the confirmation of Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was eventually confirmed but politically damaged in the process.
Duke University’s Peter Feaver said Democrats would love to take down one of Trump’s nominees, but he doesn’t think it will be Tillerson. He cited former secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel, who stumbled badly in 2013 and still won confirmation.
“[Tillerson’s] still finding his sea legs when he’s talking about human rights,” Feaver said. “I think he will get much more comfortable speaking about these issues as secretary of state.” —J.C.D.