The Senate confirmation hearing for Donald Trump's secretary of state nominee, Rex Tillerson, which began Wednesday morning and is scheduled to continue Thursday, is likely to take the title of the most fascinating of the parade of hearings. Tillerson fielded questions from senators, speaking from a background that includes no formal government or diplomatic experience. He was until last week Exxon's chief executive.
Tillerson's conduct as the head of the oil giant, his business dealings in Russia and his relationship with President Vladimir Putin were the subject of the first day of pointed questions from both Senate Democrats and Republicans.
Because the secretary of state is in charge of the nation's climate diplomacy, Tillerson also faced questions about Exxon's history of climate change research and funding of denial, and how his support for the Paris climate agreement meshes with Trump's promise to "cancel" it.
Follow our live updates from ICN journalists John H. Cushman Jr., Neela Banerjee and Marianne Lavelle here.
As a primer, read ICN's coverage of Tillerson and Exxon's climate history:
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire reminded Tillerson that the G20 nations have pledged to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. It's a promise that dates to 2009 but is still pending, and is likely to come up at the next meeting of these major economies in a few months.
Tillerson shrugged the question off. "I'm not aware of anything the fossil fuel industry gets that I would characterize as a subsidy," he said. "Rather it is simply an application of the tax code."
Defining subsidies is no simple matter, but the basic principle is pretty simple—policies should discourage things that are harmful and should reward things that are helpful. The G20 position has been that things that underwrite consumption of fossil fuels, for example, or make them cheaper to produce through financial incentives are considered subsidies. In some analytical circles, it is even considered a subsidy to ignore what economists call the "externalities" —like the damages from climate change that nobody bothers to incorporate into the price of fossil fuels.
In any event, it just so happens that there's a new analysis out this week from the Stockholm Environmental Institute and EarthTrack, which quantifies how much harmful fossil fuel production is underwritten by U.S. policy.
"The study shows that at current prices of around $50 per barrel, 45 percent of discovered, but not yet developed, oil resources are only economically viable with federal and state production subsidies," says the advocacy group Oil Change International, which is promoting the study. The full study is here.
As the final hour of the hearing approached—it will be wrapping up by 6, at least for today—Tillerson once again was pressed on climate, this time by Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon.
This time, while he reiterated some of his previous answers, he shaded them in ways that revealed his considerable skepticism over the urgency of action.
For example, when Merkley asked him whether he believed climate change was a significant national security concern (see the previous posting about the new intelligence report on that question) Tillerson said: "I don't see it as the imminent national security threat that perhaps others do."
One reason is that Tillerson continues to express doubt that any particular severe weather event can be directly linked to climate change.
When Merkley asked whether, for example, droughts like Syria's could spark refugee crises, Tillerson responded: "The facts on the ground are indisputable, in terms of what is happening with drought, disease, insect populations, all the things you cite. The science behind the clean connection is not conclusive and there are many reports out there that we are unable yet to connect specific events to climate change alone."
In fact, scientists have made considerable progress in making that connection, a field known as attribution studies. Some events are harder to link conclusively to climate than others, but as Merkley commented, the evidence is growing stronger all the time. And even Tillerson agreed that the lack of precision in the science "doesn't mean we should do nothing."
On another note, Tillerson elaborated on the reasons for the U.S. not to abandon Paris—to keep other countries honest. "I think it's important that the U.S. maintain a seat at the table so we can judge the level of commitment of the other 189 or so countries around the table, and again, adjust our own course accordingly."
"It looks like a treaty," is what Tillerson said about the Paris climate accord, in an exchange with Sen. Ron Johnson (D-Wisc.) about the Senate's role of advice and consent regarding international treaties.
The subtext of this exchange is the argument by some in the GOP that the Paris accord should have been brought before the Republican-controlled Senate for ratification: a vote that would be a death sentence for the treaty.
As an analysis by the Congressional Research Service pointed out, the Obama administration negotiated the Paris accord as a subsidiary to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. That treaty was negotiated at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio under President George H.W. Bush, and it was ratified by voice vote of the Senate. The Obama administration and its supporters argue that the Paris accord did not require a new ratification vote.
Tillerson clarified his personal position on the Paris agreement in answer he gave to New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall. ""I think we are better off by being at that table than leaving that table," Tillerson said, explicitly saying he meant the Paris agreement signed by more than 190 nations.
Udall noted that the two of them had discussed the matter when Tillerson made the rounds to meet committee members. Tillerson's articulation of his personal position is a marker to judge how much sway he has with the Trump administration. Will he be able to convince Trump to stay in Paris Accord? Or will he end up sidelined like Christine Todd Whitman, administrator of President George W. Bush's Environmental Protection Agency, whose willingness to address climate change was quashed by Vice President Dick Cheney?
Outside the Tillerson hearing, organizers from 350.org said that more than 200 protestors—at least 15 dressed as T. rex dinosaurs—were demonstrating against Tillerson's appointment for secretary of state.
In responding to New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker's questions about sanctions in response to Russia's invasion of Crimea, Tillerson said he didn't think the sanctions deterred further aggressive action by the Putin regime. He said that Ukrainian forces should have taken a "defensive" show of force at the line of conflict with Russia. Does that mean Tillerson believes sanctions should not have been implemented at all?
Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming noted the $3 billion that the U.S. has pledged to the UN Global Climate Fund. That fund is designed to help the poorest nations cope with the impact of climate change and to help them reduce their own emissions.
Barrasso asked if Tillerson would support to cutting that commitment to zero.
"My expectation is we're going to look at all this from the bottom up," Tillerson said.
Barrasso said "there are so many opportunities where the money could be better spent," including against terrorism.
The two also had an exchange on poverty and energy.
"Nothing lifts people out of poverty faster than electricity," Tillerson said. And he added "I think it's important that we use wisely the American people's dollars, and that it is used for whatever is the most efficient, effective way to deliver electricity to people."
The important climate, energy and development issue the two were discussing somewhat indirectly is how the world addresses the 3 billion people in the world who rely on wood, dung, and charcoal for cooking, at great risk to their health. A number of fossil fuel companies have focused on this issue, promoting natural gas and natural gas-fired electricity as a way to lift these communities out of poverty and protect health. But that electricity could also be provided, possibly more efficiently, from renewable sources, which is not in the interest of fossil fuel supporters.
In case you missed it, Tillerson answered questions about whether the United States would remain in the Paris climate accord in a such a non-committal way that he left open the possibility for the Trump administration to ditch the agreement or pull out of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), as some of the President's team have recommended.
Tillerson suggested that the "America First" motto that Trump ran on would be the main criterion in assessing participation in the global climate accord.
Responding to a question from Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey about staying in the accord, Tillerson said that Trump would conduct a thorough review of global and bilateral accords on climate. He also said that he would make his views known to the new president, who has vowed to cancel the agreement and who has called climate change a "hoax" invented by the Chinese to hobble American business. Tillerson did not say what his views or recommendations would be.
Tillerson then continued: "I also know that the president as part of his priority in campaigning was to put America first. So there's important considerations as we commit to such accords and as those accords are executed over time, are there any elements of that put America at a disadvantage?"
The Trump team could cite such considerations in abandoning UN efforts to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial times.
Markey then asked if it should be a priority of the U.S. to work with other countries to find solutions to that problem.
Tillerson answered: "It's important for America to remain engaged in those discussions so we are at the table expressing a view and understanding what the impacts may be on the American people and American competitiveness."
In response to the exchange between Corker and Tillerson on sanctions against Russia, ExxonMobil replied in a direct message over Twitter: "As our former chairman said, we provided information about impact of sanctions, but did not lobby against sanctions. The lobby disclosure reports cited do not contradict his testimony."
More on sanctions. When the hearing resumed after a five minute break, Chairman Bob Corker gave Tillerson an opportunity to elaborate on his statement that he did not lobby the Obama administration about the sanctions it introduced against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
Tillerson said he didn't lobby against sanctions. Rather, he said he met with administration officials about how such sanctions would be constructed and how they would affect American business interests in Russia.
Tillerson went on to say that at the time sanctions were introduced, Exxon was drilling an exploratory well in a remote part of the Arctic called the Kara Sea. The sanctions "went into immediate effect, there was no grace period," he said, and he "engaged immediately" to tell the State Department that halting the drilling would be a risk to people and the environment.
"It took about five days for them to understand. Exxon stood still," Tillerson said. The State Department then gave the company a temporary license to complete the well by late 2014 and then remove the workers and the rig itself, as per sanctions.
"The characterization that ExxonMobil was against sanctions is just not accurate," he said.
A bit later, Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy said that any call to administration officials to shape sanctions is considered lobbying.
After Sen. Udall's questioning of Tillerson, the committee chairman, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee tried to do a "redirect," as they'd say in a courtroom.
"Would you succinctly state your personal position as it relates to climate change?"
Said Tillerson, "I came to my personal position over about 20 years as an engineer and a scientist, understanding the evolution of the science. I came to the conclusion that the risk of climate change does exist. And the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken. The type of action seems to be where the largest areas of debate exist in the public discourse.
"I think it's important to recognize the U.S. has done a pretty good job...."
Said Corker, "This is not quite as succinct as I was hoping."
Worth noting: It would be quite a development in Congress if the debate moved to the question of "the type of action" that should be taken, when some members clearly are still debating whether human-caused climate change exists. Also, if the U.S. has done "a pretty good job," that must be referring to the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that has occurred under President Obama's administration.
Finally, Corker asked flatly: "You believe, based on science, that human activity is contributing to climate change?"
Said Tillerson: "The increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited."
In his exhange with Tillerson, Sen. Udall noted Exxon's stated support for a carbon tax, and asked whether Tillerson will advocate a carbon tax.
"When it gets to tax policy that's going to be responsibility of other agencies to conduct," Tillerson said. "My role at the State Department would be only to deal with those issues that are relevant to treaties and international accords, in terms of our continued compliance with those, participation in those."
(Remember, one of those accords is the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Tillerson has not made a strong statement specifically on continued participation in the Paris accord, which Trump has said he wants to "cancel.")
Udall then asked Tillerson about the analysis he made on climate policies how he came to a conclusion that a carbon tax was the best policy on climate change.
"The analysis I went through was largely informed by a number of economic studies. It was during the time Congress was debating the cap and trade approach, which in my view, had not produced the result everyone wanted in Europe. So in Europe we had a working model we had been watching, and in which ExxonMobil had been participating. This stimulated the question for me, 'If this isn't working, what might?'
"One of the most important elements of even considering something like that as a solution, though, is two other aspects: One, it replaces the hodgepodge of approaches we have today, which are scattered. Some of which are through mandates, some well-intended, but ineffective incentives. So let's simplify the system. This is the one and only effort we're going to undertake to begin to try to influence choices. The second qualifier I've always placed on it is it has to be revenue-neutral. All revenue the money goes back out into the economy through reduced employee payroll taxes. There will be impact on jobs, so let's reduce the impact by putting the revenue back out into the economy. So none of the money is held in the federal treasury for other purposes. The purpose is to incentivize the choices people are making. It's not a revenue raiser."
More from the Kaine/Tillerson exchange:
Ever since ICN's reports appeared, Exxon has been caught up in a legal fight with state attorneys general, led by New York's Eric Schneiderman, over what it knew and whether it properly disclosed the risks of climate change to shareholders and investors. If Tillerson spoke about this under oath at this hearing, it conceivably could complicate matters for lawyers at the company he led. Environmental advocates had said for weeks that they wanted detailed questions on these matters to be posed at the hearing.
Kaine went so far as to quote extensively from one internal company document revealed in ICN's investigation, and had it entered into the record.
"Over the past several years a clear scientific consensus has emerged regarding the expected climatic effects of increased atmospheric CO2," an Exxon researcher wrote in the 1982 memo. "The consensus is that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from its pre-industrial revolution value would result in an average global temperature rise of (3.0 ± 1.5)°C." (Equal to 5.4 ± 2.7°F).
"There is unanimous agreement in the scientific community that a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about significant changes in the earth's climate, including rainfall distribution and alterations in the biosphere."
It was a particularly notable citation, in light of Tillerson's earlier testimony that it is hard to predict how much emissions might cause the planet to warm.
You can watch the exchange here.
Tillerson brushed aside questions based mainly on InsideClimate News' 2015 investigative series on Exxon's record on climate change, saying that Exxon should be asked the questions, not him.
"I'm in no position to speak on their behalf," he said. "You will have to ask them."
Sen. Tim Kaine, who was Hillary Clinton's vice presidential running mate, sought the comments in a detailed set of questions that carefully reiterated the main points made by ICN in a series that the senator noted was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, as well as similar reporting by a Columbia Journalism School team published by the Los Angeles Times. The articles noted that Exxon invested heavily in climate research as early as the 1970's, recognized the risks, but nonetheless supported organizations that sought to undermine the scientific consensus that its own scientists had confirmed.
When Tillerson demurred, Kaine asked whether he was "unable" to answer, or "unwilling."
"A little of both," Tillerson answered, getting a quiet laugh from the room but an expression of disbelief from Kaine, who said Tillerson surely knew a lot about the subject.
More from Tillerson's exchange with Sen. Udall on climate change.
Udall noted that the Trump transition team had sent a query to the Energy Department requesting the names of staffers who had participated in the Paris agreement. Udall asked if Tillerson planned to "persecute, sideline or otherwise retaliate against " career staffers who had worked on international climate change issues.
"No sir, that would be a pretty unhelpful way to get started," Tillerson said.
Udall then referenced Exxon's corporate position on climate, that the risk is clear and warrants action. Did Tillerson still personally stand by that statement today?
"I do not take exception to that statement. I might articulate it a little differently as to my personal views.
"The president-elect has invited my views, he has asked for them. He knows that I am on the public record with my views. And I look forward providing those, if confirmed, to him, in discussions around how the U.S. should conduct its policies in this area.
"Ultimately, the President-elect was elected, and I'll carry out his policies in order to be as successful as possible.
"But I think it's important to note that he has asked, and I feel free to express those views."
In answering a basic question Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker put to him about whether he accepts man-made climate change, Tillerson said a couple of interesting things. He said the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are rising, but he refrained from ascribing the increase to burning fossil fuels, such as those his company's product produces. He then said that we have very little knowledge about how those greater greenhouse gas concentrations would affect life on Earth.
That's incorrect. Climate scientists have gotten an increasingly fine-grained view of the effects climate change is having and could have, including longer and more intensive heat waves and droughts, sea level rise and its impact on coastal communities, loss of species, increase in pests and constrained water resources.
Here's what the IPCC has recently said: "Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, and in global mean sea level rise; and it is extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. In recent decades, changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans."
And this too: "Surface temperature is projected to rise over the 21st century under all assessed emission scenarios. It is very likely that heat waves will occur more often and last longer, and that extreme precipitation events will become more intense and frequent in many regions. The ocean will continue to warm and acidify, and global mean sea level to rise."
Here's what the US government has weighed in with similar conclusions in its National Climate Asessment.
Tillerson had a substantive exchange related to climate, with Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.). There were important points made on his future dealings with Exxon, on a carbon tax, and on climate science.
On future dealings with Exxon:
Udall noted Exxon has relationships all over the world, so he asked how will Tillerson handle a country where Exxon is involved in a dispute? Will he take phone calls from Exxon's chief executive, his successor?
"I would not expect I would be taking phone calls from any business leaders," Tillerson said. "In my prior role I never called on the secretary of state directly. I called on the deputy often, or the missions, primarily the ambassadors. Whether I'll be taking phone calls from anyone is subject to question.
"I've made clear... that there's a statutory recusal period which I will adhere to on any matters that deal directly and specifically with ExxonMobil. Beyond that, though, in terms of broader issues that might involve the oil and natural gas industry itself, the scope of that is such that I would not expect to have to recuse myself.
"In any instance where there is any question, or even the appearance, I would expect to seek the guidance of counsel from the office of ethics in the State Department, and will follow their guidance on whether it was an issue I should recuse myself from."
So it is important to note that he emphasized he will not be recused from climate change issues, unless the State Department ethics officer says he needs to be.
Democratic Sen. Tom Udall asked Tillerson if he would support sidelining or persecuting civil servants who have worked on climate change, a possibility that has been hinted at by some moves the Trump transition team has made.
Tillerson said: "No sir, that'd be a pretty unhelpful way to get started."
And he drew a chuckle from the room.
Rex Tillerson just said he did not know of ExxonMobil lobbying against sanctions the Obama administration applied to Russia in 2014 over its invasion of Ukraine. That might depend on how you define lobbying. When sanctions were imposed, Exxon had begun drilling an exploration well in Russia's Kara Sea, as part of a landmark deal it signed with the Putin government in 2011 to exploit oil and gas in the Arctic. The sanctions jammed a stick in the spokes of the Arctic deal.
Contrary to what he said at the hearing, Tillerson visited the White House at least five times after the sanctions were imposed, according to Bloomberg News.
"Tillerson, who has questioned whether sanctions work, was concerned that European nations might not apply the restrictions as strictly as the U.S., giving Exxon's European competitors an advantage, according to a White House official at the time, who asked not to be identified because the purpose of the visits was never made public," the Bloomberg article said.
Exxon also lobbied against an effort that would make it harder for a future president to lift sanctions, according to a Politico story in December.
Among other points in the National Intelligence Council global trends report:
"The willingness of individuals, groups, and governments to uphold recent environmental commitments, embrace clean energy technologies, and prepare for unforeseen extreme environmental and ecological events will test the potential for cooperation on global challenges to come."
"Climate change—whether observed or anticipated—will become integral to how people view their world. Many ecological and environmental stresses cut across state borders, complicating the ability of communities and governments to manage their effects. The urgency of the politics will vary due to differences in the intensity and geography of such change."
"Climate change will drive both geopolitical competition and international cooperation as well. China, poised for global leadership on climate change, would likely keep to its Paris commitments but could weaken its support for monitoring mechanisms and gain favor with developing world emitters like India."
If Tillerson is briefed on climate change by intelligence agencies, they will surely tell him that it is an issue that needs the secretary of state's serious attention.
The National Intelligence Council, representing the view of the whole intel team, just released a report on global trends that has this to say about the climate crisis:
"A range of global hazards pose imminent and longer-term threats that will require collective action to address—even as cooperation becomes harder. More extreme weather, water and soil stress, and food insecurity will disrupt societies. Sea-level rise, ocean acidification, glacial melt, and pollution will change living patterns. Tensions over climate change will grow. Increased travel and poor health infrastructure will make infectious diseases harder to manage."
This is such a widely held consensus among the world's thoughtful national security leaders that it is not really subject to dispute—unlike some other recent intelligence findings and theories that are occupying Washington as the Trump team comes into power.
Two more protesters interrupted the questioning of Tillerson and were ejected. Both of them held up "Rexx" posters. The first one spoke out immediately after Sen. Ron Johnson, (R-Wisc.) had asked Tillerson to explain what he meant by his statement that "Russia does not think like we do."
"Exxon wants to drill and burn the Arctic!" the protester called out. "That would ruin the climate and our future for our children and grandchildren. Please don't put Exxon in charge of the State Department Protect our children and grandchildren!"
Committee Chairman Corker said he would "stop the clock" whenever there are such interruptions, assuring the Senators the time would not be counted against their limited time for questioning. That was fortunate for Johnson, because his questioning was interrupted again a few moments later.
"Vulnerable communities are expendable," to the oil industry, the protester said. "In our home state of Texas, people are resisting dated pipelines. Oil is dead and people will not stop. Senators, be brave. Stop this man. Protect the vulnerable!"
Each of the two protestors was ejected from the room in turn. Tillerson did finally get a chance to expound on his views on Russia: "They are very calculating, very strategic in their thinking," he said.
In answering the early pointed questions that Senators Cardin and Rubio raised about Russia committing human rights abuses and war crimes, Tillerson said he would need to see classified information before making any judgment about Russia's culpability. His future boss, however, seems to place little faith in the classified information intelligence agencies provide.
Florida Republican and GOP presidential contender Marco Rubio is pushing Tillerson even harder than Cardin on Russia. He asked whether he would advise Trump to continue Obama's sanctions against Russia over the election cyber attacks. Tillerson said he would have to review materials once he is in office. Rubio asked if he'd call Putin a war criminal for the bombing in Aleppo. On that, Tillerson said no.
Tillerson had his first chance to address climate change and the future U.S. role in the 2015 Paris accord on global warming in response to a question from the ranking Democratic member of the committee, Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland: "Do you believe that the United States should continue in international leadership on climate change?"
Said Tillerson, "I think it's important that the United States maintain its seat at the table in the conversations on how to address the threats of climate change, which do require a global response. No one country is going to solve this alone."
Cardin had said he had asked this question of Trump's nominee for Environmental Protection Agency chief, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. And Pruitt said that was a question that should be posed to Tillerson.
Tillerson finances, part 3:
Tillerson has also agreed to give up his rights to about $7 million in other retirement benefits he was due from Exxon, including medical and dental insurance, and administrative, financial and tax support.
He's also giving up his right to an Exxon credit card he could have used for discounted gasoline for life.
Maryland Sen. Benjamin Cardin pushes a hard line on Russia and Tillerson is so far concurring. Tillerson said that Crimea was "a taking of territory that was not theirs."
He said that Ukraine should have lined up its forces on eastern line against Russian troops that had invaded Ukraine to say to Russia, "You took the Crimea but this stops right here."
More on Tillerson's finances: During the 10 years in which his money is in the Exxon blind trust, Tillerson would be prohibited from working in the oil and gas industry, he said in his letter to federal regulators. If he violates that prohibition, he would forfeit the remaining funds and the money would be distributed "to one or more charities involved in fighting poverty or disease in the developing world," according to a company statement.
But the watchdog group Public Citizen noted that the language in the documents that Exxon filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission is slightly different than the letter he sent the ethics regulators. The SEC disclosure says Tillerson would be barred from "competitive" employment in the oil and gas industry. Is that a loophole that means Tillerson couldn't work for other oil and gas companies, but he could work again for Exxon (as a consultant, since he has reached the company's mandatory retirement age of 65 and could not be an employee again)? It will be interesting to see if he is asked about this detail.
Tillerson just said that Russia is not unpredictable in advancing its interests. I'd like to get a better understanding about how Russia is more predictable to Tillerson and the Trump administration than radical Islam and China. All state and now non-state actors have interests that animate them. Predictability signals someone you can get a bead on, and possibly work and negotiate with.
The financial aspect of Tillerson's nomination has been one of the most fascinating parts of it. He has assets worth as much as $400 million, according to his financial disclosures. If confirmed as secretary of state, he has agreed to sell the 600,000 shares of Exxon stock he owns, a stake worth about $52 million, based on the company's current market price.
But the more complex issue is what happens to the much larger stake—2 million shares, worth about $176 million—that he was due to receive over the next 10 years.
In an arrangement designed in consultation with federal ethics regulators, Exxon agreed to put the current value of those deferred shares into a blind trust that would be barred from investing in Exxon. He'll receive cash payouts from the trust over 10 years, based on a formula that takes into account the value of Exxon stock at that time. That prevents Tillerson from getting a big cash bonus from going to the government, but it also works to his benefit—an analysis by Fortune magazine notes—because it allows him to put off a big tax bill.
Although Tillerson's opening statement didn't refer to climate change, a heckler who interrupted him did. "Senators, be brave! Protect my community...My home was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy!" The protestor was escorted out of the hearing room.
In his prepared remarks, Tillerson takes a tough stance toward "radical Islam" and China's ambitions in the South China Sea. His comments about Russia are more conciliatory.
"We must also be clear-eyed about our relationship with Russia. Russia today poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests. It has invaded Ukraine, including the taking of Crimea, and supported Syrian forces that brutally violate the laws of war. Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia.
"But it was in the absence of American leadership that this door was left open and unintended signals were sent. We backtracked on commitments we made to allies. We sent weak or mixed signals with 'red lines' that turned into green lights. We did not recognize that Russia does not think like we do. Words alone do not sweep away an uneven and at times contentious history between our two nations. But we need an open and frank dialogue with Russia regarding its ambitions, so that we know how to chart our own course.
"Where cooperation with Russia based on common interests is possible, such as reducing the global threat of terrorism, we ought to explore these options. Where important differences remain, we should be steadfast in defending the interests of America and her allies. Russia must know that we will be accountable to our commitments and those of our allies, and that Russia must be held to account for its actions."
You may think that Rex Tillerson needs no introduction, but introductions are an important element of the ritual of the confirmation hearing, carefully planned by the presidential transition teams. You'll notice it's not only people who know the nominee, but they sometimes like introductions by people who it is a little bit surprising to see endorsing the candidate.
For example, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) was first up to introduce Tillerson. When Cornyn was Texas' attorney general in 2001, he launched a lawsuit against Exxon, charging that the company owed the state tens of millions of royalties for oil and gas it drained from beneath a state highway right-of-way. "We are accusing them of stealing oil and gas owned by the state of Texas," Cornyn said at the time. Exxon succeeded in getting that claim thrown out., saying it ran counter to decades of law in Texas. This all occurred before Tillerson took over as company chief executive in 2006.
Today Cornyn told his colleagues that Tillerson was "an inspired choice" for secretary of state.
Bob Semple, who has witnessed the modern environmental era from his seat as a Pulitzer-winning editorial writer at The New York Times, is urging members of the Foreign Relations Committee to be sure they give due time to the climate crisis as they interview Tillerson.
Citing research by InsideClimate News, Semple calls Exxon's historical stance on climate change "particularly negligent, indeed borderline duplicitous," even in an industry whose interest in reducing emissions of greenhouse gases "has been close to zero."
Semple gives credit to Tillerson for moderating the company's position in recent years. "But how much of this was public relations is not clear," he writes.
"In May, Mr. Tillerson said, 'At Exxon Mobil, we share the view that the risks of climate change are serious and warrant thoughtful action.' " Semple notes. "The unsettling thing there is the phrase 'thoughtful action,' which sounds for all the world like 'common sense solutions,' the usual formulation when politicians plan to do nothing. What the world needs in a secretary of state is far greater sense of urgency than that, not to mention an agenda for action."
Robert Gates, for decades a fixture of national security policy circles under presidents of both parties, has no quarrels with Rex Tillerson and gave him a resounding endorsement, laced with sober words about how grave are the foreign policy challenges facing the country.
It was a remarkable display of a seasoned insider's ability to let bygones be bygones. Gates was a vocal critic of Donald Trump during the campaign -- and vice versa.
Gates at one point called Trump's foreign policy "beyond repair."
Trump, in a September speech in Colorado, said this:
"We had a clown today, an absolute clown, Robert Gates," as reported by NBC News. "He's supposed to be an expert. He's been there forever ... he goes out and he says negative things about me. I never met him. I never talked to him. Believe me, I am so much better at what he's doing than he is."
Former national security advisor Robert Gates said at the hearing that Tillerson will be candid and honest and will tell Trump the real deal
Gates moved on to address Tillerson's relationship with Russia. He said said he spent his whole career on Russia and acquired a reputation as a hardliner. But he also saw necessity of dialogue. "This administration must thread the needle against pushing back against Putin...and stopping a downward spiral in relations." Gates did a good job presenting Tillerson as experienced in foreign affairs and able to thread that needle.
Now that Gates has gotten the ball rolling, someone should keep track of how many times Tillerson's Boy Scout past will be mentioned by his supporters.
Tillerson has agreed to recuse himself from certain matters to avoid conflicts or the appearance of conflict, unless he gets prior authorization under a section of the federal ethics regulations known as 5 C.F.R. § 2635.502(d). What that means is he needs to get prior authorization from a State Department ethics officer.
So if Tillerson is confirmed, he said he will seek such an authorization before participating "in any particular matter involving specific parties in which I know that ExxonMobil is a party or represents a party" for the first year following his resignation from the company, which was December 31.
He also said he will seek an ethics authorization before participating "in any matter where "a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts would question [his] impartiality."
One of the most enthusiastic voices to welcome the news last month that Tillerson would be named secretary of state was that of OPEC, the oil cartel whose mission is, of course, to prop up oil prices and the finances of its members—or, as it puts it, to enhance stability and foster investment in petroleum.
The U.S. is not a member. Nor is Russia, although it played a role in OPEC's latest efforts to control the oil glut and prop up prices. Nowadays OPEC cannot achieve its ends without cooperation from companies and countries that are not in step with its goals— including the U.S. and its domestic industry.
In an interview on CNBC, the cartel's secretary general, Mohammad Barkindo, embraced Tillerson as "an outstanding accomplished oil technocrat" and declared that "we in the industry who share Rex's primary constituency are very proud" to have one of their ranks rise to such a powerful post.
"The United States is extremely lucky to have such an asset step into the State Department at these challenging times, considering the geopolitics of the world," Barkindo said, adding:
"There is a very thin line between oil and geopolitics and diplomacy."
Rex Tillerson knows all about what Washington insiders call "murder boards" as he prepared for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Murder boards" are intense preparation for Congressional hearings, often with those who will be testifying facing rounds of practice questions day after day. Several of Trump's cabinet nominees have no government experience, including Tillerson, so they have been put through their paces recently at mock hearings in a D.C. office building, according to a story by Politico.
The murder boards might be a concentrated form of the questioning that Tillerson has gotten over the years from shareholders seeking greater accountability from ExxonMobil on its climate change policies and practices. Shareholders have been pushing throughout his tenure as CEO for the company to invest in renewables, cut its own emissions and add a board member with expertise on climate change. Tillerson has faced that pressure calmly but always with a firm no.
So far, he has held the activist shareholders at bay. The question today is will that kind of chief executive experience and now, the murder boards, be enough for Tillerson to prevail in hearings where his views on climate change and ties to Russia will be repeatedly probed?