Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy on the Nomination of Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State

Mr. President, today the Senate is considering the nomination of Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State.  Mr. Tillerson is an intelligent, hard-working, and successful businessman.  He is also, in my view, the wrong choice to be our Nation’s top diplomat. 

To effectively confront the many challenges our country faces in an increasingly globalized and volatile world, we need a Secretary of State who, with credibility and conviction, can clearly and effectively articulate our interests and values, and who has experience advocating for them abroad.

We need someone who will work with the international community to combat climate change, bring to justice war criminals like Bashar al-Assad, and stand up to corrupt, abusive regimes that violate international humanitarian law and territorial integrity as Russia has done in Syria and Ukraine. 

We need someone who will advocate for fundamental human rights and democratic values when they are threatened by friend or foe.    

I am unconvinced that Mr. Tillerson is that person. 

As an accomplished businessman, Mr. Tillerson’s lone qualification for Secretary of State seems to be his success in tirelessly circumnavigating the globe to negotiate oil deals.  There is no doubt he has helped ExxonMobil expand its business and made a lot of money doing so.  But contrary to the view being promoted by the Trump Administration, running a for-profit business is fundamentally different from running a large Federal agency. 

As the CEO of ExxonMobil, Mr. Tillerson worked closely with corrupt autocrats like Vladimir Putin who were actively undermining U.S. interests and acting in ways that were counter to our values.  In doing so Mr. Tillerson served his shareholders, but he disregarded the national interests of the United States. 

Unlike some in this body, I believe we should have relations with governments we disagree with.  But I also believe that in doing so we must act in accordance with our principles and values.  And I don’t believe that being the CEO of one of this country’s wealthiest entitles you to ignore those values for the sake of making money.  

Mr. Tillerson’s confirmation hearing provided him the opportunity to reconcile his track record of a lifetime in the oil business with the responsibilities he would have as Secretary of State. 

In his testimony, he stated that “American leadership requires moral clarity.”  I agree.  But he was challenged by Senators Rubio, Murphy, and others who observed that despite this statement, Mr. Tillerson was unwilling to label the relentless bombardment and destruction of Aleppo by Russian forces as a war crime, or the extrajudicial killings of thousands of civilians in the Philippines as a blatant violation of human rights, to cite only two examples of well-documented cases of atrocities he refused to recognize as such.  

I worry that Mr. Tillerson will too often be inclined to subjugate fundamental human rights to what he perceives as overriding economic or security concerns.  There is nothing in the record to suggest that he recognizes that the protection of human rights is itself a national security imperative or that he would differ from the President on these issues that have become even more important since January 20th.

We also have no idea what Mr. Tillerson thinks about the President’s misguided, discriminatory, and probably illegal decision to ban entry to the United States of all citizens of Syria and half a dozen other Muslim countries, because he has been conspicuously silent even though the State Department will have a key role in enforcing it.  Our diplomats posted overseas will bear the brunt of the retaliatory actions by outraged governments in countries targeted by this arbitrary and self-defeating Executive Order.   

Nor do we know what he thinks of the President’s draft executive order that signals a drastic reduction in our support for, and influence in, the United Nations.  Will the President consult with Mr. Tillerson before issuing that order?  Does Mr. Tillerson think it is a smart way to protect our interests and reassure our allies?  We don’t know.   

ExxonMobil, while Mr. Tillerson was CEO, lobbied to overturn section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank legislation which is designed to stop the illicit flow of revenues from oil and gas extraction to corrupt governments.  Senator Lugar, who played a key role in that bipartisan legislation, said at the time that stopping such corruption is a national security and economic priority for the United States.  Does Mr. Tillerson think that shrouding in secrecy corruption involving hundreds of billions of dollars by governments who steal from their own impoverished people is in our national interest?  We don’t know because he doesn’t say.

My other abiding concern with this nominee is that we are being asked to confirm the head of the world’s largest oil company to be the country’s top diplomat, at a time when I believe the most challenging issue we and the world face is climate change resulting from the combustion of fossil fuels.

Uniting the world to combat climate change will not be possible without unprecedented U.S. leadership.  Leadership requires credibility, and on this issue Mr. Tillerson has next to none.  He has devoted his professional career, and become a billionaire in the process, to extracting and selling as much oil as possible.  If, at his confirmation hearing, Mr. Tillerson had said that he recognizes the causal connection between burning fossil fuels and climate change, that he understands the grave threat it poses, and that he is determined to use the position of Secretary of State to build on the record of the Obama Administration to combat climate change, I might feel differently.  But he said nothing remotely like that. 

To the contrary, when asked at his confirmation hearing if ExxonMobil concealed what it knew about climate change while funding outside groups that raised doubts about the science, Mr. Tillerson said he was “in no position to speak” for the company even though he had been the CEO until only a few days before.  When asked whether he lacked the knowledge to answer or was refusing to do so, he replied “A little of both.”  That should concern each of us. 

Based on his professional record and his responses at the hearing, I do not believe Mr. Tillerson is the right person to be representing the United States in negotiations to reduce carbon emissions, one of the defining issues of our time.

I was also disappointed by Mr. Tillerson’s responses to a number of other questions submitted for the record, including regarding U.S. policy toward Cuba and the right of Americans to travel there.  By simply repeating the Republican talking points that he would act consistent with the Helms-Burton Act, he appeared to embrace a law that has failed to achieve any of its objectives and has prevented Americans from traveling freely to Cuba or U.S. companies from doing business there. 

Does Mr. Tillerson believe that Cuba, an impoverished island of 11 million people who overwhelmingly have a positive opinion of the United States, should remain the country with the most U.S. sanctions of any in the world?  He didn’t say.

I hope that, if confirmed, Mr. Tillerson will evaluate our policy toward Cuba objectively and in a manner that favors diplomatic engagement – as the overwhelming majority of Cubans and Americans want – over isolation.

I understand that nominees are often unwilling to take hard positions, or unable to discuss in detail at this early stage all of the issues they will be required to manage in their new job.  But we should expect a nominee for Secretary of State to be willing and able to recognize and condemn horrific violations of human rights, and to speak out against actions by foreign governments, and our own, that are obviously inconsistent with our interests and values. 

Mr. President, President Obama did not achieve every foreign policy goal he set out to achieve, nor did I always agree with President Obama’s or Secretary of State Kerry’s priorities.  But we worked together and with our international partners we made notable progress over the past eight years on human rights, climate change, reducing poverty, and many other issues – progress we must continue to build on.  With nationalism and isolationism on the rise, and democracy and fundamental freedoms under threat, we need a Secretary of State who has demonstrated a track record and commitment to more than economic enrichment. 

If Mr. Tillerson is confirmed, which I expect he will be, I will continue my longstanding support for the funding to enable the State Department to carry out its vital mission to protect and promote U.S. interests and values abroad.  When he and I agree, I will support him.  When we disagree, I will be vocal in my opposition as I was during the Obama Administration. 

I hope Mr. Tillerson will also be a strong advocate for the State Department’s budget and personnel, including by protecting the integrity of the Dissent Channel to ensure that alternative views on important policy decisions can be expressed and considered without fear of retribution.  Even the best policies in the world are worth little more than the paper they are printed on without the funds and the people to implement them. 

We should always remember that the face of the United States is its people.  Leadership is possible only through the hard work of the diplomats serving around the world to promote our values, defend our interests, and engage constructively with friends and adversaries.  Their service, dedication, and expertise are the reason we are able to effectively confront an increasingly dangerous world.  Our success at home is inextricably linked to their success abroad.  That is why, just as we support the men and women of our military, so should we recognize and support the diplomats at the Department of State.  

The State Department’s indispensable role, made possible by its outstanding workforce, is recognized by the many widely respected senior U.S. Armed Forces officials, current and retired, who have repeatedly called for increased funding for diplomacy and development.  They know better than anyone that preventing wars is far less costly than fighting them, and that wars rarely if ever turn out the way one predicts, as the past 50 years painfully illustrate.  

Regardless of whatever differences of opinion we may have, I hope Mr. Tillerson will consult regularly with Republicans and Democrats as has been the custom with past successful Secretaries of State of both parties.  I have been here a long time, and I would be the first to say that we have had outstanding top diplomats from both parties.  I put James Baker in that category, and I sincerely hope that Mr. Tillerson proves me wrong and joins their ranks.  We all want what is best for the American people and the Nation, and we are stronger when we work together, and with other nations, to find a common way forward.

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