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Recap of Rex Tillerson's Senate confirmation hearing for secretary of state

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg January 12, 2017
Linda Qiu
By Linda Qiu January 12, 2017
Miriam Valverde
By Miriam Valverde January 12, 2017

Rex Tillerson broke with President-elect Donald Trump on several key global issues in his Jan. 11 confirmation hearing to become secretary of state.

Tillerson, the former chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., also faced repeated questioning about potential conflicts of interest, as he owns more than $200 million worth of the company’s stock.

In contrast to Trump's attitude toward Moscow, Tillerson -- whose own business ties to Russia have been the subject of concern -- said he didn't think the Obama administration's reaction to Russia's 2014 invasion of Crimea was tough enough.

Tillerson’s acceptance of climate change also counters Trump's denial, though Tillerson wouldn't go so far as to treat it as an imminent threat and dodged questioning over Exxon's role in suppressing climate research.

Here are some key claims made during the hearing, fact-checked and with context.

Tillerson on election hackings, Putin

In one of the testiest exchanges during the hearing between Tillerson and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Tillerson accepted the intelligence community’s finding of Russia’s interference in the election but declined to charge Russian President Vladimir Putin with human rights abuses.

The intelligence report on Russian influence in U.S. elections, released Jan. 6, "is troubling and indicates that all of the actions you described were undertaken," Tillerson said.

After receiving the same report and an intelligence briefing on Russia’s influence in the 2016 election, Trump said foreign governments had "absolutely no effect" on the election outcome, a claim we rated Mostly False. But a few days later, in a press conference scheduled during Tillerson’s hearing, Trump admitted that Russia was involved in hackings.

Rubio also directed attention to Russia’s role in crimes in Syria (read our explainer on the situation in Aleppo) and criticized Tillerson for his hesitation to label Putin a war criminal and his "inability to cite that which I think is globally accepted."

Rubio has a point that human rights groups in the West and Syria have documented war crimes committed by the Russian-Syrian coalition. The United States has criticized Russia for contributing to a humanitarian crisis in Syria.

The Florida senator also asked Tillerson if he believed Putin "and his cronies" ordered the killing of dissidents, political opponents and journalists, to which Tillerson said he did not have enough information to make that claim.

We’ve looked into claims of Putin persecuting journalists and dissidents and found while there is no evidence directly connecting the Russian president to the killings (34 murders since 2000, by our latest count), experts say journalists’ killers "are emboldened to act by an administration that marginalizes them, isolates them, and downplays their role in society."

Muslim registry: Tillerson does not want to target one group

Regarding a national registry for American Muslims, Tillerson said he would need more information on "how such an approach would even be constructed."

If it’s used as a vetting tool, then it would probably extend to "other groups that are threats to the U.S.," he said.

Tillerson said he did not support a registry targeting any particular group.

Trump had talked about the creation of databases, a registry and watch lists for the sake of national security on the campaign. He said he wanted a database for Syrian refugees and did not rule out one for all Muslims.

Sanctions: Tillerson says he never personally lobbied against sanctions, nor did his company

In his questioning, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., told Tillerson that in 2014 Exxon Mobil "lobbied aggressively" against Russian sanctions.

"I have never lobbied against sanctions personally ...To my knowledge, Exxon never directly lobbied against sanctions," Tillerson said.

We rated the claim Mostly False.

Government lobbying records show that in 2014 and 2015, Exxon paid the Nickles Group over $193,000 to press "issues related to Russian sanctions impacting the energy sector," along with a number of other matters.

It paid another $120,000 in 2014 and 2015 to Avenue Solutions for work on a range of issues, including "energy sanctions in the Ukraine and Russia."

In the same time frame, according to public logs, Tillerson visited the White House five times to see Jeffrey Zients, director of the National Economic Council. The meetings started about a week after President Barack Obama authorized the first of three rounds of sanctions.

Bloomberg reported that Tillerson saw Treasury Secretary Jack Lew seven times in the second half of 2014. The Treasury Department oversees how sanctions are carried out.

On gender equity

Facing questioning over the Trump transition team’s request for a list of State Department employees who worked on gender equity programs, Tillerson committed to continuing those programs, adding that the issue has "long been important to me personally."  

"There are study after study to confirm that when you empower women in these developing parts of the world, you change the future of the country because you change the cycle within that family," Tillerson said.

His claim of the benefits of empowering women sounds like Michelle Obama’s claim that sending girls to school can lift a nation’s economy. That’s Mostly True, backed by World Bank economists and independent researchers. But it’s unclear whether more education for women leads to economic growth or if it’s the other way around.

On conflicts of interest

Responding to concerns over possible conflicts of interests, Tillerson committed to doing whatever is required to disentangle himself from the company at which he worked for 41 years.

As we recently reported, there is no requirement for Tillerson to divest from his holdings. But if he did want to hold onto to his Exxon Mobil stock, he would have to recuse himself of any state business related to the company place his holdings in a blind trust while serving in the Trump administration or simply seek a waiver from the president-elect.

Asked how he would carry out foreign policy in countries where Exxon has business dealings, Tillerson said he would adhere to a statutory recusal period.

"Beyond that though, in terms of broader issues dealing with the fact that it might involve the oil and natural gas industry itself, the scope of that is such that I would not expect to have to recuse myself," Tillerson said.

In cases "where there is any question, or even the appearance," Tillerson said he would seek guidance from the Office of Ethics in the State Department.

"The risk of climate change does exist, and that the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken."

In a major departure from Trump’s views, Tillerson acknowledged the reality of climate change.

Trump in 2012 tweeted that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese (though he’s inaccurately denied it). Though he’s since characterized that particular remark as a joke, Trump still denies climate change science.

Tillerson also expressed support for a carbon tax provided it is revenue-neutral, echoing his 2009 remarks in favor of a tax to bring down carbon emissions. Exxon’s rhetorical support for the policy, however, was not backed by lobbying or political action, according to InsideClimate News.

"China is 90 percent of North Korea's trading exports and import trading. So they really do have complete control over what sustains the government of North Korea."

Throughout the hearing, Tillerson signaled that he would take a more aggressive stance with China, including calling China out for its economic relationship with Pyongyang.

Tillerson’s claim of China’s economic influence over North Korea is a much more nuanced version of Trump’s claim that China has "total control" over country.

We rated Trump’s claim Mostly False. As Tillerson indicated, China accounts for a large majority of North Korea’s trade and investment flows and thus has significant leverage over North Korea. But North Korea has conducted nuclear tests over Beijing’s strenuous objections.

"I don’t see (climate change) as the imminent national security threat that perhaps, others do."

Though Tillerson accepts climate change science, he’s skeptical that it’s a national security issue.

Responding to Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who noted the role climate change played in the refugee crisis in the Middle East, Tillerson said, "The facts on the ground are indisputable, in terms of what's happening with the drought, disease insect populations, all the things you cite" but "we are unable yet connect specific events to climate change."

When we examined the link between climate change and ISIS, we found a credible study that supports the notion that a drought, spurred by climate change, was one of the many factors that led to the Syrian conflict. The chaos in the area created a better opportunity for ISIS to thrive.

It should also be noted that the Department of Defense under Obama has named climate change as a security threat.

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Recap of Rex Tillerson's Senate confirmation hearing for secretary of state