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Trump’s Secretary of State nominee couldn’t answer basic questions at his hearing

Spoiler: They’re not that complicated.

Rex Tillerson testifies on Capitol Hill at his confirmation hearing to become the Secretary of State. CREDIT: Patsy Lynch/MediaPunch/IPX
Rex Tillerson testifies on Capitol Hill at his confirmation hearing to become the Secretary of State. CREDIT: Patsy Lynch/MediaPunch/IPX

During his confirmation hearing Wednesday, President-elect Donald Trump’s Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson repeatedly said he needs more information on some pretty basic foreign policy questions.

Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobbil, has very little foreign policy experience, and it showed in his hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Pointing to his business experience as proof of his credentials, Tillerson fumbled on quite a few questions he was asked.

Here are some of the things Tillerson needs more information on:

1. Is Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal?

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) directly asked Tillerson whether Russian President Vladimir Putin is a war criminal. “I would not use that term,” Tillerson replied.

Rubio then listed many of the Russian government’s crimes in Syria and Chechnya:

Let me describe the situation in Aleppo. [Putin] has directed his military to conduct a devastating campaign. He’s targeted schools, markets — not just assisted the Syrians in doing it — his military targeted schools, markets, other civilian infrastructure resulting in the deaths of thousands of civilians. This is not the first time Mr. Putin was involved in campaigns of this kind. Back when he was just appointed prime minister before he was elected… there was a series of bombings and they blamed it on the Chechans…Mr. Putin ordered the air force to bomb their capital with scud missiles to hit hospitals, the main market…137 people died instantly…He used battlefield weapons against civilians…an estimated 300,000 civilians were killed and the city was destroyed.

There was a credible body of reporting, open source and other, that all the bombings were part of a black flag operation on the part of the FSB [Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation] and if you want to know the motivation, here it is. Putin’s approval ratings before the attacks were 31 percent. By mid August of that year it was 78 percent in just three months. Based on this information and what’s publicly in the record about what happened in Aleppo and the Russian military, you are not prepared to say Vladimir Putin and his military violated the rules of war and conducted war crimes in Aleppo?

Despite Rubio’s best efforts, Tillerson still said he wasn’t sure. “Those are very serious charges to make,” he said. “I would want to have much more information before reaching a conclusion.”

2. Is Putin responsible for the murder of journalists in Russia?

Rubio asked Tillerson if he believes Putin is responsible for the murder of journalists and political opponents in Russia.

“I do not have sufficient information to make that claim,” Tillerson replied.

Rubio: Are you aware that people who do not agree with Putin wined up dead all over the world. Do you believe it isly, as I believe, they were murdering their political opponent?

Tillerson: People in regimes that are oppressive are often a threat and these things happen to them. In terms of assigning specific responsibilities, I would have to have more information. As I indicated, I feel it is important that it advising the president, if confirmed, that I deal with facts, that I deal with sufficient information, which means access to all information and I’m sure there is a large body of information that I’ve never seen in the classified realm. I look forward, if confirmed, to becoming fully informed. But I am not willing to make conclusions on what is only publicly available or publicly —

Rubio: None of this is classified.

Like Rubio said, the Russian government’s crackdown (and murder) of journalists and political opponents isn’t secret knowledge. In 2016, the “Russian authorities blocked several independent websites, adopted new laws, proposed measures that would further stifle freedom of expression, and prosecuted critics for speaking out online,” Human Rights Watch reported.

3. Should there should be a Muslim registry?

Tillerson said he needed more information before he could say whether or not he supported a Muslim registry, one of the major policies that Trump campaigned on in his bid for the presidency.

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“I would need to have a lot more information around how such an approach would even be constructed. And if it were a tool for vetting, then it probably extends to other people as well, other groups that are threats to the United States,” Tillerson said after being questioned on the registry by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). It would require me, much more information to how that would even be approached.”

Later in the hearing, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) asked Tillerson whether he supports bringing back the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a controversial registry program started under President George W. Bush that mainly targeted Arab and Muslim immigrants. (Twenty-four of the 25 countries on the list were Muslim-majority countries. The 25th was North Korea.) President Obama discontinued NSEERS in 2011, and officially ended the program last month.

But Tillerson said Wednesday he doesn’t know about the program. “I’m not familiar enough to be able to address it specifically,” Tillerson said. “I’m happy to get back to you with an answer though.”

4. Is Saudi Arabia violating human rights?

After being asked by Rubio about Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations, Tillerson said he needed more information.

“As it currently stands, do you consider what they do to be human rights violations?” Rubio asked.

“I would need to have greater information, senator, in order to make a true determination of that,” Tillerson said.

Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations — and its oppression of women in particular — is common knowledge. A religious monarchy, the Saudi Arabian government cracks down on peaceful dissidents, human rights defenders, and activists. It has a horrible record on the rights of women, religious minorities, and migrant workers.

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The country’s male guardianship system treats all women as legal minors, no matter how old they are, and women must receive permission of a male guardian — which could be a father, brother, husband, or even son — to travel abroad, marry, and even be released from prison. The government does not punish employers who require women to receive their guardian’s permission in order to work. For the most part, women are not allowed to drive or receive their driver’s licenses.

Tillerson pointed to “centuries long cultures” in the country to explain the oppression. He did not confirm that they are human rights violations.

5. What’s the deal with cluster munitions in Saudi’s war on Yemen?

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) asked Tillerson about Saudi Arabia’s use of cluster munitions in its war on Yemen.

“Much of the world has said these are terrible weapons to use because they have a range of fuses, and they can often go off months or years after they’ve been laid down. These are the cluster bombs, you’re familiar with them. They have also been targeting civilians. How should the U.S. respond to those actions?”

Tillerson said the United States should work with Saudi Arabia in providing “better targeting intelligence,” but did not answer about the cluster munitions.

“How about in regard to the use of cluster munitions?” Merkley repeated.

“Well, I would have to examine what our past policy has been,” Tillerson said. “I don’t want to get out ahead of — we have made commitments in this area. I don’t want to get out ahead of anyone on that.”

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Saudi’s war on Yemen began in March 2015, and since then, the coalition it has led in an air assault campaign on the country has been accused of committing war crimes and been criticized internationally. The United Nations has estimated that the Saudi-led coalition is responsible for 60 percent of about 3,800 civilian deaths since March 2015.

“Aerial attacks by the Saudi-led coalition have already caused immense carnage and destroyed much of the country’s medical facilities and other vital civilian infrastructure,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said last fall. “Excuses ring hollow given the pattern of violence throughout the conflict. Parties cannot hide behind the fog of this war. A man-made catastrophe is unfolding before our eyes.”

The Saudi-led coalition has led the war with the help of U.S.-made weapons, including cluster munitions. This is very well documented.

6. Is there anything wrong with the Philippines’ bloody war on drugs?

When Rubio asked Tillerson for his thoughts on Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, Tillerson said he couldn’t comment.

Rubio brought up a Los Angeles Times article which notes that since Duterte took office last June, about 6,200 people have been killed by police and vigilantes in the war on drugs.

“My question is about the 6,200 people that have been killed under these alleged drug raids,” Rubio said. “Do you believe that that is an appropriate way to conduct that operation, or do you believe that it is something that’s conducive to human rights violations that we should be concerned about and condemning?”

“It is an area I’d want to understand in greater detail in terms of the facts on the ground,” said Tillerson. “I’m not disputing anything you’re saying, because I know you have access to information that I do not have.”

“This is from the Los Angeles Times,” Rubio replied. “One of the sources for that number and the campaign and its nature is President Duterte himself, who openly brags about the people that are being shot and killed on the streets, who he has determined are drug dealers without any trial. So if in fact he continues to brag about it, would that be reliable information you would look at and say okay, it’s happening? What’s happening in the Philippines he is not an intelligence issue. It is openly reported, in multiple press accounts.”

Again, Rubio is right. The LA Times isn’t alone in reporting the horrors of Duterte’s war on drugs.

“In the name of wiping out ‘drug crime,’ President Duterte has steamrolled human rights protections and elevated unlawful killings of criminal suspects to a cornerstone of government policy,” said Phelim Kine, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Despite the horrors of the drug war, which killed 38 people per day from July to September of last year alone, Trump has praised Duterte. Last month, the president-elect spoke with Duterte, and after the call he said Duterte was handling the drug problem “the right way.” Duterte said he “could sense a good rapport” and said that Trump “was wishing me success in my campaign against the drug problem.”

7. Did Exxon lobby against U.S. sanctions on other countries?

This is perhaps the most ridiculous one on the list. As the former CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson should be aware of his company’s role in lobbying government officials, and he should have known he would be asked about it in his hearing.

During the hearing, Tillerson said that neither he nor Exxon ever lobbied against U.S. sanctions on other countries. Rather he said Exxon was just seeking more information about the sanctions.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) followed up on the claim and literally held up documents showing reports that Exxon did lobby government officials.

“I have four different lobbying reports, totaling millions of dollars, as required by the lobbying disclosure act, that list ExxonMobil’s lobbying activities on four specific pieces of legislation authorizing sanctions, including the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act of 2010, the Russian Aggression Prevention Act of 2014, the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014, and the Stand for Ukraine Act,” Menendez said. “Now, I know you’re pretty new to this, but it’s pretty clear. My understanding is that when you employ lobbyists, who submit lobbying forms under the law, you are taking a position. Is that not correct?”

“I don’t know if it indicates — were we lobbying for the sanctions or were we lobbying against the sanctions?” Tillerson asked.

“I know you weren’t lobbying for the sanctions.”

It’s not surprising that Tillerson lobbied against the sanctions as the CEO of Exxon, as they would have prevented Exxon from doing business in other countries — and thus making the most profit possible. What is surprising is that Tillerson said he had no information about it.

8. Should the United States work with Iran to fight ISIS?

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) asked Tillerson whether the United States should work with Iran to fight ISIS.

“That’s an area that requires exploration,” Tillerson said.

Again, it’s surprising that Tillerson couldn’t answer this. People have different thoughts on whether the United States and Iran should work together to fight ISIS, which both countries view as an enemy. (ISIS views Shia Muslims, the majority of Iranians, as heretical, and Iran claimed it thwarted a planned attack by the militant group in July of last year.)

The United States and Iran have worked together on occasion in the past, like against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and in some operations in Iraq.

Regardless of what a Trump administration thinks about working with Iran — we probably already know the answer — fighting ISIS will be one of the bigger things a Trump administration will have to tackle. Tillerson should at least have some thoughts on who U.S. allies should be in the fight.

9. What is Trump’s relationship with the Russian government?

There have been a lot of reports recently on the president-elect’s relationship with Russia, but Tillerson has no information on it.

Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-CT) asked Tillerson about the recent CNN report that Russia has gathered personal and financial information about Trump, in order to influence his views on U.S.-Russian relations.

“This report is as earth-shattering as it is thinly sourced, but it was deemed credible enough for our intelligence agencies to read in both the president and the president elect,” said Murphy. “I think we all pray it isn’t true, and I certainly understand you’re not in a position to testify to the contents of that report, but let me just ask you some very simple questions. Have you been briefed yet on these allegations on this report?”

Tillerson told Murphy that he hasn’t been briefed on the allegations, and he doesn’t know whether Trump was either. Tillerson also said that he had no information on possible financial connections between President-elect Trump, his family, or the Trump organizations and Russian individuals or organizations or the Russian government.

At one point, Tillerson said that he has not been briefed on Russia at all by the president-elect.

“That’s pretty amazing,” Menendez replied.