Democrats Scrutinize Rex Tillerson, Trump's Pick For Secretary Of State
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Confirmation hearings for Donald Trump's Cabinet picks begin next week. And one of the first nominees to go before the Senate will be Rex Tillerson, Trump's choice for secretary of state. Tillerson has been harshly criticized by Democrats and also some Republicans for his business ties to Russia, but the question is whether Senate Democrats would even be able to muster the votes to block his nomination.
Senator Chris Coons met with Rex Tillerson at his offices in Washington, D.C., yesterday, and he is with us on the line from his hometown Wilmington, Del., to give us his impression. Senator, good morning.
CHRIS COONS: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So how did your conversation with Rex Tillerson go? I know you had a lot of concerns about his ties to Russia, you've expressed them. Did you ask some questions about that?
COONS: Of course.
GREENE: Of course.
COONS: We had a very long conversation, a generally constructive conversation that lasted an hour and a half. And I'm looking forward to continuing that conversation during the confirmation hearing next week because the American people deserve a chance to hear the questions that I asked and the answers that he gave.
GREENE: What did you ask him?
COONS: Well, my first and I think most important question was about his business relationships with Russia, his personal friendship with Vladimir Putin and his view of Russia and the United States. I pointedly said to him that I see a big difference between being the CEO of the world's largest oil company...
GREENE: ExxonMobil, yeah.
COONS: ...Trying to extract shareholder value from Russia, and being secretary of state, trying to fight for America's values by pressing for human rights and press freedom and democracy. And so I challenged him across a wide range of fronts - his views of Putin's aggression in Ukraine, Putin's role in the massacres in Aleppo, Putin's role in trying to separate the United States from NATO. And he had more thoughtful and thorough answers than previous public statements by President-elect Trump might have suggested his secretary of state nominee would have.
GREENE: Did he offer answers that made you think that he could put his business experience, business ties, business interests aside to represent the United States?
COONS: Well, he certainly asserted that. And I complimented him on how swiftly he has completely severed ties from ExxonMobil, and pointedly said to him that my real concern is that President-elect Trump has not released his taxes, has not come up with any plan for severing his ties to his global business enterprise. And so I said to him, you know, that was my second most pressing concern, that his activities as secretary of state - if he's confirmed - will be heavily influenced by his experience at ExxonMobil and by the world view of the oil and gas industry.
So I asked him a whole series of questions about his experiences working in difficult and dangerous places with dictators or with undemocratic governments and how he would interact with those countries and those leaders differently as secretary of state than he may have as the head of ExxonMobil.
GREENE: You know, ExxonMobil did reach this agreement with Tillerson to comply with conflict of interest requirements and sever ties to the company. You're saying you used that conversation to raise concerns about Donald Trump and conflict of interest. Did Tillerson say anything that made you feel better in that regard?
COONS: Well, he simply observed that he thought it was his obligation to sever his ties to ExxonMobil and to fully comply with the background check and financial release requirements of the committee. When I pressed him on President-elect Trump, you know, he didn't have a thorough answer. And that was sort of a theme throughout the whole conversation. I pressed him on the value of NATO, and he said I see NATO as essential to our security and our alliance with Western Europe as sort of the foundation of the seven decades of peace that we've had since the Second World War.
And I said, well, how can you speak to the alarming or concerning statements of President-elect Trump? He doesn't have full answers for that yet. And my core concern is that while Mr. Tillerson may have some reasonable answers about conflicts of interest or his view of Putin and Russia, the man for whom he would be serving hasn't addressed those core concerns.
GREENE: You going to vote for Tillerson in committee and on the Senate floor?
COONS: I don't know yet. I look forward to a full hearing. One of my core concerns - and I've expressed this to the committee chair - is that he's scheduling his hearing for the same day that we will be doing something that's inelegantly called the vote-a-rama (ph) as we try to...
GREENE: The vote-a-rama?
COONS: Yes (laughter).
GREENE: What is that?
COONS: It's an arcane piece of Senate procedure where in order to adopt reconciliation instructions under a budget bill, we have an open season where as many amendments as possible get voted on.
GREENE: Oh, I see. You're saying this hearing should not have any distractions, it should be...
GREENE: ...Somewhere else.
COONS: And it may well happen on a day where we are literally voting continuously for 24 hours. I don't think that's the right day to hold a hearing where the members of the Foreign Relations Committee who have real concerns - both Republicans and Democrats - want to hear his full answers, not just race in and out.
GREENE: OK, so still undecided on Rex Tillerson. That is Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. Thanks so much for talking to us this morning.
COONS: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.