ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, president-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, is likely to face a grilling from both Republican and Democratic senators during his confirmation hearing today. And rightly so.
Tillerson has presided over deals between ExxonMobil and the Russian government. Those close ties have led to serious criticism, including harsh words from Republican senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio, who have publicly criticized him for his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. A cozy relationship with a key rival would be problematic for anyone who aspires to become the country’s top diplomat. In light of US intelligence officials’ allegations that Putin ordered hackers to disrupt the US presidential election in Trump’s favor–as well as a still unsubstantiated report that broke yesterday that Russia has been cultivating Trump’s presidency for years–Tillerson’s ties become downright urgent.
Three Republican defections are enough to sink Tillerson so long as Democrats remain united in their opposition. And they have little reason to break ranks. The party is still eager to probe the Trump administration’s ties to Russia. And the chief executive of a big oil company presents Democrats with a big, fat target for highlighting the GOP’s ongoing denial of the realities of climate change. Skeptical senators will likely try to keep the hearing focused on Russia and oil, as well they should. Here’s a cheat sheet with the big questions they should make sure Tillerson has to answer:
How will you handle Russia, a country that allegedly attempted to hack the American election and that may have dirt on Trump?
Expect Russia to dominate the conversation today. Trump has repeatedly praised Putin since the election. Meanwhile, in 2013, the Russian president awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship, a high honor given to foreign nationals who work to improve relations with the country. And now several news organizations report that a confidential intelligence memo alleges the Russian government has been collecting salacious information about Trump for years while feeding his campaign intelligence about Hillary Clinton.
In light of the recent hacks and the United States’ decision to level new sanctions against Russia, Tillerson will need to explain the exact nature of his relationship with the longtime US antagonist. He also needs to say unequivocally whether or not he supports the Obama administration’s sanctions. That won’t be an easy line for Tillerson to walk, considering that after Obama announced the US would expel 35 Russian diplomats over the hacks, Trump called Putin “smart” for resisting retaliation. Even some Republicans have called for greater sanctions against Russia, including visa bans and the freezing of assets.
Tillerson has already taken one major step to avoid the appearance of any conflict of interest: He announced last week that if he is confirmed, he would cut ties with ExxonMobil. That concession may help alleviate concerns that Tillerson could work to ease sanctions on Russia and other oil-rich countries in order to benefit himself financially. But senators today still shouldn’t let him off the hook on his Russia ties.
Trump has promised to overhaul the North American Free Trade Agreement and torpedo the Trans-Pacific Partnership. How do you square the president-elect’s protectionism with your own past support for free trade?
As secretary of state, Tillerson would play a major role in forging trade agreements under a president whose anti-globalization talk was one of his most successful selling points. Tillerson, meanwhile, has expressed strong support for open markets.
In a 2013 speech, the nominee praised the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. “The eleven nations that have been working to lower trade barriers and end protectionist policies under this partnership are a diverse mix of developed and developing economies,” Tillerson said. “But all of them understand the value of open markets to growth and progress for every nation.”
Ratification of the TPP seems unlikely under Trump. But Tillerson will still have to negotiate the country’s complex economic relationships with China and Mexico. Trump has expressed interest in imposing huge tariffs on goods imported from both countries, and economists fear Trump could start a trade war that will torpedo the US economy.
“They would most likely retaliate with in-kind tariffs on US imports,” wrote Moody’s chief economist Mark Zandi in a recent report. “This would be a big hit to US exports, as we ship well over $100 billion in products a year to China, and almost $250 billion to Mexico.”
As the CEO of a $269 billion oil juggernaut, Tillerson likely understands the economic repercussions of tightening trade agreements all too well. The question is how he would square that understanding with president-elect Trump’s policies.
How do you reconcile your support for the Paris Agreement on climate change with Trump’s vow to withdraw from the treaty?
A total of 122 countries have ratified the 2015 Paris Agreement–a UN treaty to limit global warming. One of those countries is the United States. Last November, when the agreement went into effect, ExxonMobil issued a statement that it too supported the treaty. This public backing was remarkable, and not just because the Paris Agreement’s language calling for reduced greenhouse gas emissions would certainly take a bite out of Exxon’s bottom line. Exxon also spent decades funding climate denial organizations. This funding continued even after Tillerson–who led the company’s public turnaround on climate science, and who says he supports a carbon tax–became the CEO in 2006.
What Tillerson really believes and supports is debatable. In practice, neither he nor his company have done any serious lobbying on behalf of the Paris Agreement, let alone a carbon tax. And as secretary of state, his job would be promoting his president’s agenda, not his own.
Still, it’s vital to force Tillerson to clarify his statements regarding climate change, because his attitude will necessarily inform the way he approaches the incredibly delicate negotiations that will happen when the Trump administration reneges on one of the most widely supported treaties in UN history. After all, there will be consequences: Nineteen of the top 20 US trading partners are all Paris Agreement signatories. These economic giants, including China, Canada, and the European Union, signed the Paris Agreement expecting the US to shoulder a similar financial burden–both in shifting from fossil fuels and helping pay for the effects of global warming. It still isn’t clear yet how they might punish the US for leaving them hanging, but a huge part of Tillerson’s job will no doubt be making sure trade, and other international relations, do not suffer once Trump cancels America’s commitment to what he’s called a “bad deal.”