If confirmed as President-elect Trump’s Secretary of State, former ExxonMobil Corp. CEO Rex W. Tillerson said he would recuse himself for one year from matters directly related to his 41-year employer.
During a confirmation hearing Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the career ExxonMobil executive, who retired last month, said he likely would be involved in diplomacy related the oil and natural gas industry, but he promised that American interests would be of paramount concern.
"The scope of that is such that I would not expect to have to recuse myself," Tillerson said. The dark horse candidate, considered an unorthodox choice as he has never held an elected office, said if there were any questions regarding potential conflicts, he would consult State Department ethics experts.
With the news of the day centered around Russia's apparent involvement to discredit Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign, Tillerson faced grilling about ExxonMobil's extensive operations. He once ran the Russian business unit for ExxonMobil and is said to be on friendly terms with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Committee member Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) was on the warpath, asking the former executive what he thought of Russia's intervention in the U.S. presidential election and how the United States should retaliate. Tillerson called the newly declassified intelligence report damning Russian involvement as "clearly troubling" and said it was a "fair assessment" that Putin directed the intervention.
In 2014, following Russia's military intervention into Ukraine, the United States imposed stringent sanctions, targeting firms operating in the country's energy sector. Under the Treasury sanctions, U.S. companies were required to shut down operations with Russian partners.
Tillerson did not deny that ExxonMobil was opposed to the sanctions, but he said he did not personally lobby against them. During the May 2014 shareholder meeting, he had said, "We do not support sanctions, generally, because we don’t find them to be effective unless they are very well implemented comprehensively, and that's a very hard thing to do."
Committee members also pressed for Tillerson's views about climate change. ExxonMobil is under investigation in a wide-ranging probe led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for an apparent cover-up of scientific research done years before Tillerson was at the helm, as well as a reserves writedown last year.
Asked to elaborate on his views by Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN), Tillerson said the increase in greenhouse gas emissions is having an effect on the climate, but "our ability to predict that effect is very limited."
Ranking member Ben Cardin (D-MD), also queried him about the historic United Nations agreement reached in Paris in late 2015 by nearly 200 nations, including the United States, India and China, to reduce global carbon emissions. Trump has said in the past that he wanted to pull the United States out of the accord.
However, Tillerson appeared to disagree with that idea. He said he reached his "personal position" about climate change over a 20-year period, working as an engineer and scientist to understand the issue.
"The risk of climate change does exist, and the consequences could be serious enough that action should be taken," he told the committee. He also said the United States should continue to partner with other countries.
"I think it's important that the United States maintain its seat at the table on the conversations around how to address the threats of climate change, which do require a global response," he said. "No one country is going to solve this alone."
Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) also quizzed him about a Trump transition memo last month, in which the Department of Energy was asked which of its staffers attended international climate change talks and interagency meetings.
"Do you plan or would you support any efforts to persecute, sideline or otherwise retaliate against career State Department employees who have worked on climate change in the past?," Udall asked.
"No, sir, that would be a pretty unhelpful way to get started," Tillerson said.
Trump has in fact "invited" Tillerson's views about climate change, he told the committee. The president-elect "knows that I am on the public record with my views, and I look forward to providing those if confirmed to him into discussions around how the U.S. should conduct its policies in this area."
Before and during his testimony, demonstrators loudly and colorfully expressed their displeasure with Tillerson, sporting t-shirts reading #ExxonKnew" and carrying signs to "Reject Rex."
One woman, who was escorted from the packed hearing room, could be heard shouting, "Whether or not you become Secretary of State, oil is dead!"