Rex Tillerson left Exxon Mobil in mid-December to start preparing for a potential job as Donald Trump’s secretary of state.
During Senate confirmation hearings on Wednesday, less than a month after leaving his Exxon post, Tillerson declined to answer questions about a company he led for 10 years.
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who was Hillary Clinton’s running mate in the 2016 election, asked Tillerson about Exxon Mobil’s history of misleading the public about what its scientists knew on the impact of climate change decades ago.
Tillerson didn’t answer the question.
“You’ll have to ask Exxon about that,” Tillerson said, adding that he does not speak for the company anymore.
Tillerson, a lifelong Texan, was also asked by New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker whether Exxon was part of USA Engage, an oil lobbying group that has opposed sanctions on Russia in the past.
Tillerson refused to answer the question, instead referring Booker to Exxon.
A press release from USA Engage announced in 2003 that an Exxon employee would lead the organization. The Exxon employee worked for USA Engage until 2007, after Tillerson started leading the company.
During the hearings, Tillerson repeatedly said that he and Exxon did not lobby Congress and the White House about sanctions against Russia implemented in 2014 that Exxon opposed because it hurt their business operations in the country.
“I have never lobbied against sanctions personally,” Tillerson said, adding, “To my knowledge, Exxon never directly lobbied against sanctions.”
Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Bob Menendez of New Jersey then confronted Tillerson with lobbying documents that showed Exxon opposed the sanctions and paid Washington-based lobbyists to oppose the legislation in Congress.
“Was I lobbying for or against the sanctions?” Tillerson asked Menendez, adding that he has not seen the documents Menendez was waving on the dais.
“I know you weren’t lobbying for the sanctions,” Menendez retorted, prompting laughter from parts of the chamber.
Tillerson later clarified to say that he opposed sanctions after they were passed by Congress.
“We do not support sanctions, generally,” Tillerson told Exxon shareholders in 2014. “We don’t find them to be effective unless they are very well-implemented comprehensively — and that’s a very hard thing to do.”
Exxon said on social media “we engage with lawmakers to discuss sanction impacts, not whether or not sanctions should be imposed.”
Exxon Mobil spent nearly $9 million on lobbying in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
While many senators on Wednesday were worried about Tillerson’s personal conflicts of interests and ties to Russia, protesters both inside and outside the hearing concentrated on Tillerson’s leadership of the world’s largest private oil and gas company.
At least three protesters were ejected from the hearing, with one shouting, “Please don’t put Exxon in charge of the state department.”