Rex Tillerson’s struggles show the risk of a president and secretary of state with no government experience

The following article by Jame Hohmann with Breanne Deppisch was posted on the Washington Post website January 13, 2017:

THE BIG IDEA: For the first time in American history, both the president and the nation’s chief diplomat are poised to have no prior government, military or legislative experience. This is a recipe for trouble. Rex Tillerson’s shaky performance yesterday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee underscored why.

The world was already a tinderbox, and Donald Trump has only contributed to the instability in the two months since he won the election. Russia, which got the outcome it wanted, is emboldened. China is on the march. Democracy is in retreat. The already-wobbly western alliance is in danger.

ExxonMobil’s market capitalization is larger than the GDP of many countries, and Tillerson has negotiated many ten-figure deals with foreign leaders. But shuttle diplomacy, grand strategy and the federal government’s mazelike bureaucracy are very different beasts.

Trump clearly believes that business experience tops government or legislative experience. Maybe he’ll be proven right. But kings of the C-suite always have less experience getting challenged, attacked and criticized in public than they think when they try to enter the political arena. Which is why Tillerson let himself get repeatedly rattled and, as a nine-hour hearing dragged on, pulled into unnecessary squabbles with senators, including one in his own party.

It all added up to a pretty bad first impression for the 64-year-old Texan. If he didn’t fully grasp how different senators are than shareholders, he learned it the hard way.

Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, told Tillerson at one point that running ExxonMobil is “not at all the same as the view from the seventh floor of the Department of State.” “Those who suggest that anyone who can run a successful business can, of course, run a government agency do a profound disservice to both,” he said.

— More than nine in 10 of George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s cabinet secretaries had prior government experience. Only about half of Trump’s nominees do. Republican lobbyist Bruce Mehlman has this remarkable slide in his quarterly PowerPoint deck for clients:

(Check out Bruce’s full PowerPoint here.)

— Consider: We’ve had 44 presidents and 68 secretaries of state. Six men have held both jobs. The office Tillerson is being considered for has been occupied by some of the most impressive Americans who ever lived, from John Marshall, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay to William Seward, William Jennings Bryan and George Marshall. In other words, this is not a vote senators should take lightly.

— Tillerson showed yesterday that he is not accustomed to being fully transparent, and like Trump, he does not believe he needs to answer questions from the public when he does not want to. Asked why he’s refusing to turn over his tax returns to the committee, for example, he said: “I hope you’ll also respect the privacy of myself and my family.”

ExxonMobil is notoriously unfriendly and inaccessible to the press, and Tillerson would not even commit to allowing a traveling press corps to follow him on his trips abroad– despite that being the long-standing practice.

— There were few indications that Tillerson is guided by a strong moral compass. Both he and Trump have four-decade records of prioritizing profits over the national interest. It’s clear that neither cares much, if at all, about advancing human rights or promoting democracy – two central values of U.S. foreign policy for the past century.

This became very clear during Marco Rubio’s three rounds of questioning: The Florida senator, showing the willingness to stand up to Trump that he promised as he sought reelection last fall, tried multiple times to get Tillerson to clearly denounce the Russian military’s barbaric actions in Syria that led to the massacre of countless civilians and to describe Vladimir Putin as a war criminal. “I would not use that term,” Tillerson said.

Rubio also unsuccessfully pressed Tillerson to frankly acknowledge human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia or the Philippines. President Rodrigo Duterte literally boasts in public about personally killing suspected criminals without giving them a trial. Tillerson eventually gave, but only a little: “I don’t think any of us would agree that that is the way to deal with offenders, no matter how egregious those facts might be.”

Of our oil-producing ally in the Middle East, Rubio wondered: “You’re not familiar with the state of affairs for people in Saudi Arabia? What life is like for women? They can’t drive! People are jailed and lashed. You are familiar with that?” Tillerson replied that he shares Rubio’s values and wants people to be free. “But,” he said, “I’m also clear eyed and realistic about dealing with centuries-old cultural differences.”

— Tillerson also wouldn’t firmly commit to maintain tough sanctions against Russia. “I would want to examine it,” he said, leaving plenty of room for the incoming administration to capitulate. He said, if he’d been at Foggy Bottom a few years ago, he would have supported giving more weapons to help Ukraine defend itself – and that this might have deterred Russia more than sanctions. But then he muddied his answer by saying that military solutions should never be pursued first.

Remember: Watch they what they do, not what they say. Tillerson’s semi-tough rhetoric on Russia during his carefully-phrased opening statement is just like Trump transition team press releases. It does not really matter because everyone, including Putin, knows someone else wrote those words.

— Dana Milbank argues in his column that Tillerson showed again and again why he earned Putin’s Order of Friendship award in 2013: “Putin has managed to achieve in a few months of cyberwarfare what his Soviet predecessors failed to do in 45 years of the Cold War: creating a pliable American government, willing to overlook human rights abuses in the interest of commerce. … It was grim to see an incoming American secretary of state avert his gaze from human rights abuses in Russia and across the globe. Rubio said it ‘demoralizes’ billions of people. ‘That cannot be who we are in the 21st century,’ Rubio told Tillerson. But apparently it already is.”

After the hearing last night, Rubio said he has not made up his mind but hinted that he might vote against him. “I have to make sure I’m 100 percent behind whatever decision that I make, because when I make it, it isn’t going to change,” he said.

The senator argued that the secretary of state is more important than the vice president. “My view is that the president deserves wide latitude in our nominations. But the more important the position is, the less latitude they have,” he told reporters, per Karoun Demirjian. “It’s like a cone: it’s really wide in some positions — as it gets higher and higher, the discretion becomes more limited and our scrutiny should become higher. And I consider this the highest of them all.”

— Conventional wisdom, though, is still that Tillerson will probably survive and make it through. Even if Rubio votes no, and all 10 Dems on the Foreign Relations committee stick together, Tillerson will still come up for a vote of the full Senate – with “no recommendation.” That would be a humiliating vote of no confidence, but Trump could ram him through by picking off a Democrat or two like Joe Manchin from an energy-producing state. So far, Rubio, John McCain and Lindsey Graham are the only three Republicans who have suggested that they may vote no. Last night, Graham called Tillerson’s answers on Russia “real fuzzy.” The South Carolina senator added, “He’s got to convince me he sees Russia for who they are.” It’s possible that these hawks will just hold out until they get stronger commitments on the issues they care about.

— Tillerson repeatedly pleaded ignorance in ways that defied credulity. He claimed he has never talked with Trump about either Russia or Syria, which is absolutely breathtaking if true. He often said he didn’t know enough to comment on issues he knew would come up, including on the Kremlin’s interference in the U.S. election.

“The Trump foreign policy briefers owed Tillerson preparation that would give him the best possible chance of success. Either Tillerson stubbornly did not take that advice, or those who briefed him committed political malpractice by suggesting weaving, ducking and evading was a good way to get the critical votes he will need to succeed,” conservative Post blogger Jen Rubin writes. “In the afternoon session, Tillerson repeatedly stumbled by getting into arguments with committee members that surely he could have avoided and by refusing to be definitive on easily answered questions.”

Tim Kaine pressed Tillerson on whether ExxonMobil concealed what it knew about climate change for decades while funding outside groups to raise unfounded skepticism about the science. “I’m in no position to speak” on behalf of the company, Tillerson said, even though he was CEO until 12 days before and worked there for 40 years. “You would have to speak to them.” Kaine pressed on: “Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question, or are you refusing to do so?” “A little of both,” Tillerson responded. (The room laughed.)

— Moreover, Tillerson wasn’t fully forthcoming – to put it diplomatically – about his company’s past lobbying efforts on sanctions. “I have never lobbied against sanctions personally,” Tillerson said. “To my knowledge, Exxon never directly lobbied against sanctions.”

Fact checkers had a field day with this, and Democrats quickly produced lobbying records that show ExxonMobil said it was lobbying over various economic sanctions measures, including sanctions on Iran back in 2010 and more recently over sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea. “Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) cited 14 such documents,” Steven Mufson notes. “Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) held up four lobbying reports. ‘In essence, Exxon became the in-house lobbyist for Russia against these sanctions,’ Menendez said. ‘I haven’t seen the form in your hands,’ said Tillerson, who (coyly) asked whether the forms showed Exxon lobbying for or against sanctions. Menendez asked whether Tillerson could imagine the company actually lobbying in favor of sanctions. Tillerson replied, ‘I don’t know, senator, it would depend on the circumstances.’” Later, Tillerson tried to muddy the water by saying Exxon was lobbying over “how sanctions would be constructed,” not against them.

Even as Tillerson claimed that he couldn’t speak for the company, whenever that was a convenient answer for him to give, ExxonMobil was basically doing rapid response on his behalf:

— The Fix’s Chris Cillizza muses that the relative lack of government experience in the cabinet might be a good thing for Trump, and he wonders if Obama might have been more successful if he’d put a CEO or two in his cabinet. “The key to Trump’s election was his promise of bringing radical change to Washington,” Chris notes. “Had he picked a bunch of establishment figures — Mitt Romney, for example, at State — he would have been abandoning that promise even before he officially became president. Trump’s candidacy — and presidency — was, and will be, like nothing we’ve seen before in modern American politics. Like it or hate it, that’s what people voted for…”

Here’s what happened at Rex Tillerson’s rocky Senate confirmation hearing

— To be sure, befitting his experience as a CEO, Tillerson broke with Trump and showed some independence on a few key issues. He expressed support for free trade generally and the Trans-Pacific Partnership specifically while rejecting a “blanket” ban on Muslim immigrants (he didn’t rule out the idea of a registry, however). He also said he does not believe that expanding the number of nuclear states or increasing the number of nukes in our arsenal is a good idea. He articulated stronger backing of the NATO alliance than Trump ever has.

The lifelong oilman, when asked about the Paris climate accord, also said that the U.S. is best served by not giving up its “seat at the table.” Pressed on the issue over a couple of rounds, Tillerson allowed that he believes “the risk of climate change does exist, and the consequences could be serious enough that action should be taken.” But he expressed no urgency about taking action and said any response must be global, not unilateral. “I don’t see it as the imminent national security threat that perhaps others do,” Tillerson said. (Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis drill deeper on the environmental angle.)

Tillerson’s overarching message, however, was that he will be simpatico on foreign policy with his president. When freshman Sen. Todd Young (R-Indiana) expressed dismay about Trump’s unvetted tweets, Tillerson replied: “I don’t think I’m going to be telling the boss how he ought to communicate with the American people. That’s going to be his choice.”

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