Tillerson Faces Questions about Russia, Big Oil, Environmentalism at Secretary of State Confirmation Hearing

rex tillerson

Wednesday will bring Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing. One of the major points of contention from Democrats, and some Republicans, is expected to be the former ExxonMobil CEO’s business dealings in Russia.

Tillerson has been praised for his experience with “strategic planning, managing international partnerships and risk, and focused leadership around the world” by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) called him “a very impressive individual” with “extraordinary working knowledge of the world.”

Other Republican senators who applauded his nomination in similar terms include James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and John Cornyn of Texas. Over in the House, Speaker Paul Ryan described Tillerson as “a proven leader and person of enormous accomplishment.”

On the other side of the aisle, the Washington Post took the temperature of Democrats in December and found them dubious about their chances of stopping Tillerson’s appointment, preferring instead to dust off their conflict-of-interest grievances and use Tillerson as a voodoo doll of President-elect Trump.

That calculation may have changed with the New Year’s hysteria over Russian influence in the 2016 election. Once the hearings start, it will be interesting to look back at that WaPo preview and remember the primary Democrat beef with Tillerson was his tax returns. If some Democrats had their way, the hearings wouldn’t even start on schedule—they’re demanding a delay to examine his financial records more carefully.

Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) said his Number One question for Tillerson would be “how he intends to make the transition” from a businessman with strong Russia ties to Secretary of State.

“I am as concerned, if not more concerned, about what the President-elect’s views are going to be — the centrality of NATO to our security, the importance of pushing back on Putin and Russia,” said Coons after meeting with Tillerson last week.

Reporting on Coons’ comments, Bloomberg Politics anticipated that some questions along those lines might also emanate from Republicans interested in a tougher stance against Russia, prominently including Trump’s 2016 primary opponent Marco Rubio of Florida, and Senator John McCain of Arizona. (When McCain was asked if he could support Tillerson last week, he growled, “Sure. There’s also a realistic scenario that pigs fly.”)

However, as of Tuesday, Coons said he was “encouraged” by Tillerson’s responses to his questions on “sanctions, on the importance of NATO, on the importance of defending our Baltic allies and on the importance of holding Russia accountable for his actions.” In fact, he made much of the “gap” between Tillerson and Trump on those topics.

Perhaps the Democrats have decided to use Tillerson as a bumper for a bank shot against Trump, and he’ll emerge from relatively smooth hearings with Democrat leaders loudly hoping his boss listens to Tillerson’s sage advice on Russia, and the stronger Putin-related critique of Tillerson will come from Republicans. Stranger things have happened in this particular presidential election.

Environmentalism is shaping up to be a major attack vector against Tillerson. Of course he’s in for some grandstanding about the evils of Big Oil, and the global-warming movement will demand some time in the confirmation spotlight. Tillerson was actually ExxonMobil’s point man when the company announced its support for carbon taxes in 2009, but hardcore greens think this was just a corporate fake-out, a P.R. stunt intended to protect oil giants from sterner measures than the carbon tax. The UK Independent predicts Tillerson will receive a grilling from climate-change activists, who seek to prove the oil industry perpetrated a decades-long “cover up” of global warming, akin to tobacco companies conspiring to minimize the health risks of smoking.

Environmentalist hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer—himself no stranger to big-bucks Russian oil dealings—is bankrolling a campaign that accuses Tillerson of “putting ExxonMobil’s interests before America’s” and “putting profits ahead of our kids’ health.”

Forbes expects climate change to be the Number One issue thrown at Tillerson, in part because global-warming evangelism became such a major focus for the State Department under Secretary of State John Kerry. It’s political turf the environmentalist movement will not cede without a fight, and the very fact that Tillerson has been amenable to climate-change concerns in the past will be used as a cudgel against him.

Interestingly, Forbes also anticipated some heat for Tillerson over the JCPOA, i.e. the Iran nuclear deal. This assumes Democrats are interested in expending political capital on preserving the deal, which might not be the case. Trump’s low opinion of the deal is well-known, and a great deal of the voting public shares it. Democrats already bled for Obama to get the deal passed, and were clobbered in the 2016 elections for their trouble. If they can’t get Tillerson to express some headline-grabbing differences of opinion with Trump on the issue, they might needle him a bit over ExxonMobil doing business with Iran in the 2000s, and then move along quickly.

In the course of handicapping Tillerson’s confirmation battle, Reuters notes he has the lowest polling numbers of any Trump cabinet nominee. In fact, he’s one of only two nominees with net negative favorability ratings, the other being Treasury Secretary-designate Steven Mnuchin. (Big surprise: the general public has an instinctively negative reaction to the oil guy and the big banker.)

This gives Democrats a lot of room to use Tillerson as a punching bag for class-warfare and environmentalist causes, while playing up Republican divisions over Russia policy, even if they can’t seriously threaten the Secretary of State nomination.

On the other hand, Democrats have nothing to boast about when it comes to Barack Obama’s Secretaries of State, who leave the State Department wracked by years of scandal and American foreign policy a bloody disaster. There’s plenty of room for Rex Tillerson to get in a little boxing practice at these hearings, too.