WASHINGTON - Former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson pledged Wednesday to restore American leadership in the world and to defeat the Islamic State as a priority in the Middle East during his Senate confirmation hearing to be Donald Trump's secretary of State.
"American leadership must not only be renewed, it must be asserted," Tillerson said in his opening statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Competing priorities must be addressed, but they must not distract us from our first priority which is defeating (the Islamic State)."
The U.S. "must be clear-eyed about our relationship with Russia," he said. "Russia today poses a danger. It invaded Ukraine including Crimea and violated the laws of war. But it’s an absence of American leadership that left this door open."
While being questioned about Russia and U.S. relations, Tillerson said, "We are not likely to be friends. We do not have the same values. But there is scope to define a different relationship to bring down the temperature of the conflict we have today. Dialogue is critical so these things do not spin out of control.”
Several senators asked whether he agreed that Russia committed war crimes with its actions in Aleppo, Syria, in 2016; it’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014; and the murder of journalists and other critics around the world. Tillerson said he would need more information to make such a conclusion.
Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the committee, pointed out that Tillerson blamed a failure of U.S. leadership for Russia’s recent aggressive actions into other countries.
“We are the only global superpower with the means and the moral compass capable of shaping the world for good,” Tillerson said.
When Cardin asked about Russia’s invasion of Crimea, Tillerson said “that was a taking of territory that was not theirs,” adding that it "caught a lot of people by surprise. ... “The real question is about the response.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., asked Tillerson if he considers Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal, mentioning Russia's actions in Syria and Russia's war against an uprising in Chechnya province.
“Those are very very serious charges to make, and I would want more information before making that conclusion,” Tillerson said.
Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., asked if Tillerson would agree such actions were criminal if U.S. intelligence agencies provided information confirming they did happen. “Yes sir,” Tillerson said.
Corker earlier told Tillerson his nomination makes sense for a president-elect who looks at the world with the eyes of a businessman, having been head of one of the world's largest corporations with operations in dozens of countries.
"You may in fact be an inspired choice," Corker said. "You are the person in charge to provide advice to the president-elect on foreign policy," he added. "What the people here today are going to want to know is how are you going to advise."
Senators also asked Tillerson about climate change, especially considering his role at the helm of ExxonMobil, one of the world's largest petroleum producers.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., asked Tillerson to confirm media reports that ExxonMobil concluded as early as the 1970s that petroleum-based emissions were damaging climate, yet decided to fund and promote views contrary to its awareness of the science.
Tillerson replied, "Since I’m no longer at ExxonMobil I can no longer speak on its behalf."
Kaine then asked, "Do you lack knowledge or refuse to share your knowledge?"
"A little of both," Tillerson said.
Tillerson had many business dealings with Russia. In 2013, the oil executive received Russia’s Order of Friendship award, which is given to foreign nationals who the Russian government believes have worked to better relations. Tillerson received the honor after inking a deal with a Russian oil company. He has also been critical of U.S. economic sanctions against Russia.
ExxonMobil did business with Iran, Syria and Sudan through a European subsidiary while Tillerson was a top executive of the oil firm, and those countries were under U.S. sanctions as state sponsors of terrorism, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings. That business connection was legal but could still surface during questioning at the confirmation hearing.
Tillerson, 64, started working for Exxon in 1975 until he resigned from the company to join Trump's Cabinet. Tillerson started as a production engineer and moved up the ranks before becoming chairman and CEO in 2006. His experience negotiating with foreign governments — including governments hostile to the United States — was one of the reasons the president-elect selected him.
“The thing I like best about Rex Tillerson is that he has vast experience at dealing successfully with all types of foreign governments,” Trump tweeted after announcing Tillerson’s appointment in December.
Tillerson was president of the Boy Scouts of America for two years beginning in 2012. He also was a longtime board member and an Eagle Scout. He was involved in Scout leadership when the organization made the decision to allow openly gay members.
Contributing: Eliza Collins