On human rights, the United States must be a beacon. America is strongest when our policies and actions match our values.More
Home / Blog / Unanswered Questions After Tillerson Confirmation Hearing
January 17, 2017

Unanswered Questions After Tillerson Confirmation Hearing

Rex Tillerson’s faced tough questions from Senators Marco Rubio, Jeanne Shaheen, Rob Portman, Chris Coons, and others at his confirmation hearing Wednesday. He made some common-sense declarations regarding Russia—that it was likely responsible for the hacks of the United States around the election, and that its invasion of Crimea was illegal, etc. However, he exhibited a worrying lack of familiarity with human rights issues, and a preference for blunt and anachronistic—rather than nuanced and innovative—responses to complex foreign policy issues involving rights, democracy promotion, and U.S. leadership on the global sphere.

When asked if he would support sanctions on Russia in response to the interference in U.S. elections, Tillerson’s response was so flimsy that it was an obvious attempt to avoid saying he opposes them, which is what all of his prior actions with Exxon clearly demonstrate. He knows that the oil and gas industry, especially Exxon, opposes sanctions, but he also knows that supporting sanctions is one of the key requirements Senators are looking for during the hearings.

When asked directly about sanctions by Rubio, Tillerson said he’d want to examine “the four corners” of that option, and declined to elaborate. He later indicated that he would only get behind sanctions under two conditions. One, if it did not affect U.S. business operating in the country, and two, if it was done in concert with other countries. Of course, this would ensure sanctions would almost never happen in his Department of State, severely limiting options in response to bad actors or human rights violators.

That might not matter much, since Tillerson also seemed unwilling—or at best incredibly reticent—to call any country a human rights violator, even when asked about some doozies, including Russia, China, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia. Rubio again launched some hard-hitting questions on this issue.

When directly asked about whether a country violated human rights, Tillerson’s responses were that he wanted to examine the “facts on the ground,” or “would need to have greater information” to decide. When pushed, he said that he would not rely on sources such as “what I read in the papers” or reports from people on the ground in that country. But this is the precise type of evidence that the State Department uses to author the annual U.S. human rights reports. And declaring certain actions violations of human rights is part of the job.

Rubio reminded him of this, and made the point of his questioning clear: political prisoners, human rights workers, and journalists all over the world look to the United States for leadership in communicating that what their governments are doing is wrong. It seems clear that Tillerson is not likely to provide that kind of leadership.

Tillerson’s mistrust of the facts as reported by journalists and the human rights workers who witness them raises concerns about his ability to represent the American values of liberty and security abroad. Is this an indication that he only believes information from sources he knows—say Vladimir Putin and Igor Sechin in Russia? Tillerson’s priorities about where he gets his information are suspect, to say the least.

This leads to another serious gap in his responses. When asked about propaganda, disinformation, and foreign interference, he demonstrated a lack of knowledge of the issues and a failure to grapple with the problem. He offered suggestions that showed he thinks the problem is still that Russia uses disinformation in Russia—and didn’t even think to discuss Russia’s interference in Europe or the United States. In response to follow-up questions that made the distinction, he offered a lame throwaway—that we put out more messaging on social media. This is the basic strategy that was underway two years ago in response to Russia’s disinformation onslaught in various countries in the European Union. We’re past that now.

We need creative and strategic solutions to address Russia’s well-oiled propaganda machine, yet Rex Tillerson isn’t even fully aware of the problem. Even after his non-answer, he had to be further educated (by Senator Portman) that the problem doesn’t even just involve disinformation, but also clandestine funding of media, creation of false NGOs and think tanks, and the wholesale creation of false news. Tillerson still indicated no awareness or no willingness to acknowledge that these things are problematic.

Tillerson’s fitness for the position continues to be discussed in the Senate, and I hope Senators will follow-up on these issues if they think they can obtain clearer answers. But I hope they also follow-up on one more thing: If he will not maintain sanctions on Russia, what will be the benefit for dropping them, and who will receive that benefit?

Tillerson was asked about Magnitsky sanctions (he’d keep them) and about sanctions for Russian interference in U.S. elections (he’d ditch them, it appears), and finally from Portman about Crimea sanctions (he said he’d keep them in place until he could “engage with Russia and understand better what their intentions are.” In light of his belief that Russia illegally annexed the territory, you might think that there is little he could say other than that the United States should maintain sanctions. At a minimum, violations of international borders shouldn’t be subverted to improving business interests in the country.

But someone should press him on this. If Tillerson will not maintain these sanctions, we have a clear sense of where his loyalties lie.