Rex Tillerson, nominee for secretary of state, stated repeatedly in a hearing Wednesday that he would need more information about various foreign affairs issues before he gave his opinion on what stances he would take as America’s top diplomat.
President-elect Donald Trump nominated the former CEO of Exxon Mobile, who has never served in government, to lead the State Department. Senators from the Foreign Relations Committee grilled Tillerson Wednesday in the first day of nomination hearings on wide-ranging topics of interest to American foreign policy from Russia to China to the Philippines.
Tillerson, who said he hasn’t had access to any classified information because he hasn’t received his security clearance, largely refrained from boxing himself in on future policy. He told Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey that he had not yet discussed Russia, which U.S. intelligence agencies have determined hacked the U.S. election to bolster Trump’s candidacy, with his future boss. Tillerson said he had only discussed a foreign policy approach “in a broad construct” with the president-elect.
“I would have thought Russia would be at the very top of that, considering all the actions that are taking place,” Menendez said. “Did that not happen?”
“That has not occurred,” Tillerson told the committee.
At various points, Tillerson’s stated views — on topics like Russia’s annexation of Crimea, nuclear weapons and NATO — directly contradicted past statements by Trump.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has been a harsh critic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, aggressively questioned Tillerson on many of the largest global challenges facing the country. He asked the nominee for secretary of state if Russian President Vladimir Putin was a war criminal, but Tillerson demurred.
“I would not use that term,” Tillerson told Rubio, who went on to describe many of the actions the Russians have carried out in Syria in support President Bashar Assad. The Russians and Syrian Army have regularly targeted schools and hospitals during the civil war, leaving thousands of civilians dead and forcing millions more to flee their homes.
“Those are very, very serious charges to make, and I want to have much more information,” Tillerson said.
Tillerson also declined to condemn other human rights abuses around the globe without having more information, and said he didn’t know enough to determine if China was one of “the world’s worst human-rights violators.” Rubio also questioned the nominee about the ongoing drug war carried out in the Philippines.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who was elected last year, has ordered extrajudicial killings of drug dealers and users across his country. Rubio referenced a report by the Los Angeles Times that put the number of dead at 6,200.
“In your view, is this the right way to conduct an anti-drug campaign?” Rubio asked.
“Senator, America and people of the Philippines have a long-standing friendship and I think it’s important that we keep that in perspective in engaging with the government of the Philippines,” Tillerson said. “They have been an ally and we need to ensure that they stay an ally.”
Rubio said he agreed the Asian country is an American ally, but he wanted to know Tillerson’s thoughts on the number of people the country’s government had unlawfully killed.
“Senator, if confirmed, again it’s an area that I’d want to understand in greater detail in terms of the facts on the ground,” Tillerson said. “I’m not disputing anything that you’re saying, because I know that you have access to information that I do not have.”
“It’s from the Los Angeles Times,” Rubio said, to which Tillerson replied, “I’m not going to solely rely on what I read in the newspapers.”
Duterte has publicly bragged about his government’s effort to eradicate drugs, and has responded defiantly to criticism of his methods. When the White House said President Barack Obama would raise human rights issues at a planned meeting with Duterte in September, Duterte publicly called Obama a “son of a bitch.” Obama then canceled the meeting.
While U.S. diplomacy regularly balances national interest with speaking out against rights violations, the Department of State consistently publicly condemns other countries for human rights abuses. The department releases country-by-country human rights reports each year detailing conditions across the globe.
Rubio asked Tillerson if he considered the lack of religious freedom and freedom for women in Saudi Arabia a human rights violation, to which the nominee replied, “I’d have to have greater information to determine that.”
Tillerson did reject a ban on Muslims from entering the U.S., an action Trump has suggested he would take in response to terrorist attacks. The nominee did not outright reject the creation of a U.S. Muslim registry.
“I would need to have a lot more information over how such an approach would be constructed,” Tillerson said.