Secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing, currently scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, is one of the most anticipated sessions of a packed week on Capitol Hill. Tillerson has spent a career advancing the interests of his company, Exxon Mobil, but his views on what U.S. foreign policy priorities should be are less clear. Additionally, his ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin have already attracted scrutiny from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Here are a few areas to watch out for when the veteran oil man finally takes the stand.
Exxon made extensive investments in the Russian energy sector under Tillerson’s watch, earning him the country’s “Order of Friendship” decoration in 2012. Even Saturday Night Live has poked fun at his friendly relationship with Putin’s government. This has raised concerns not only from Democrats like Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Ben Cardin, but from prominent GOP Russia hawks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham as well.
Last week’s hacking report and the outgoing administration’s new sanctions against Russia have only raised the stakes. Expect Tillerson to be asked whether he buys the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the U.S. election, and, if so, what he thinks we should do about it. He will also likely be asked his views on U.S. sanctions against Russia, which he opposed as Exxon CEO. If Tillerson opposes not only the election-related sanctions, but those applied on Russia in recent years over the conflict in Ukraine, the champagne will be flowing in the Kremlin.
Conflicts of Interest
This applies to Russia, of course, but not only Russia. Exxon has major interests in global hotspots from Nigeria to Mexico to Iraq. Tillerson has pledged to cash out his Exxon shares if he is confirmed and not to return to the oil and gas industry for 10 years after his term is up, but he should still expect to be grilled about whether he’ll be looking out for American interests or his old firm’s bottom line, and how he differentiates between the two. It was also reported this week that Exxon skirted U.S. sanctions to do business in Iran, Syria, and Sudan under Tillerson’s watch.
The appointment of an oil company CEO as secretary of state is not encouraging news for the future of the Paris Agreement and global cooperation to fight climate change—particularly given Exxon’s history of denying climate change and funding denialism. Nobody expects Tillerson to be an environmental champion, but he may actually be more progressive than his boss on this issue: Tillerson has said in the past that he supports a carbon tax. That may have been all PR, but it will be interesting to see if he still thinks it’s a good idea now that he’s going into government.
Trump and his pick for ambassador to Israel both say they want to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a purely symbolic gesture likely to infuriate much of the Muslim world—one that administrations from both parties have been avoiding for the past 20 years. Does the man vying to become America’s top diplomat think it’s worthwhile?
The conflict in Syria is in a transitional phase following the crushing of the anti-government rebellion in Aleppo. Russia and Turkey seem to be calling the shots, with peace talks likely to take place later this month in Kazakhstan. What role does Tillerson think the U.S. should play in Syrian diplomacy? Does he think Bashar al-Assad should step down or stay? Should the U.S. continue supporting the Syrian Kurds, despite Kurdish objections? Should it partner with Russia to fight ISIS? Has he thought any of this through in more detail than Trump has?
Trump already broke with U.S. foreign policy precedent, before even taking office, by speaking on the phone with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, prompting an angry reaction from mainland China, which considers the island a rebellious province. Tsai followed up her diplomatic coup by meeting with Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. Ted Cruz during a brief stopover in Texas this past weekend. Can we infer from all this that the Trump administration intends to abandon the one-China policy entirely? And if so, how does Tillerson plan to deal with the fallout from Beijing? Even aside from all that, Tillerson will have increasing tension in the South China Sea on his desk on day one.
Aside from the future of the one-China policy, the big question to come out of the Taiwan incident is whether Trump knew what he was doing, or was simply making up policy on the fly and responding to international criticism to it with Twitter tirades. Is Tillerson at all worried about how he will keep his boss’s itchy Twitter finger from undermining his own diplomatic efforts?