Rex Tillerson’s witless, contradictory, and obfuscatory testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmed fears that the ExxonMobil CEO is too conflicted, too ill-prepared, and too disengaged from accepted understandings with regard to diplomacy, sustainable development, and human rights to be seriously considered for the position of secretary of state.
But the most unsettling exchange took place after an initial round of questioning by New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. The veteran member of the Foreign Relations Committee asked what should have been a simple concluding question.
Tillerson’s response was incredible.
Senator Menendez: “For all of these answers you’ve given me, does the president-elect agree with you?”
Rex Tillerson: “The president-elect and I have not had the opportunity to discuss this specific issue or this specific area.”
Senator Menendez: “Well, in your statement on page three, you say, ‘In his campaign, president-elect Trump proposed a bold new commitment to advancing American interests in our foreign policy. I hope to explain what this approach means and how I’d implement that policy if I am confirmed as Secretary of State.’ I assumed to some degree you’ve had some discussion about what it is that that world view is going to be in order to understand whether you are willing to execute that on behalf of the person you’re going to work for?”
Rex Tillerson: “In a broad construct and in terms of the principles that are going to guide that, yes, sir.”
Senator Menendez: “I would have thought Russia would be at the very top of that, considering all that’s taken place. Did that not happen?”
Rex Tillerson: “That has not occurred yet, Senator.”
Senator Menendez: “That’s pretty amazing.”
In an interview following the exchange on Wednesday, Senator Menendez said it was “beyond my imagination” that Tillerson had not engaged in serious discussions about major foreign-policy issues and concerns with President-elect Donald Trump.
“He said that in his one meeting or his two meetings with the President-elect, he didn’t even discuss Russia—which is beyond my imagination,” the New Jersey Democrat said of the oil-company CEO.
“[These] are all,” Menendez suggested, “elements that are going to be concerning as we have to decide on Mr. Tillerson’s nomination.”
No matter what citizens and senators think of Trump or Tillerson, no matter what citizens and senators think about US relations with Russia and the issues that have arisen with regard to those relations, the notion that a corporate CEO would accept a nomination to serve as secretary of state without engaging in extended and serious discussions about major issues should be greeted with shock and dismay.
It is not as if Donald Trump’s selection of his choice for secretary of state was a snap decision.
Trump’s high-profile search for a nominee to take charge of the State Department took weeks. He rejected prominent prospects, such as 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, during the most closely examined and consequential period of the cabinet-selection process.
Trump finally settled on a candidate whom NBC News introduced to Americans as a “64-year-old veteran oil executive [who] has no government or diplomatic experience.”
Yet Tillerson has now told the Senate that he and Trump did not engage in substantive discussions regarding hot-button issues that could complicate the working relationship between an incoming commander in chief and a nominee who will be charged with explaining and implementing what many expect will be a radical restructuring of foreign relations.
Reflecting on Tillerson’s characterization of his conversations with the president-elect, Senator Menendez said, “I don’t know how he’s going to get to speak for [Trump] unless he knows what positions and views he has.”
If Tillerson’s conversations with Trump were as cursory as the nominee suggests, then he has failed to display the basic curiosity and due diligence that would be expected of even the lowest-level diplomat.
Indeed, Rex Tillerson’s testimony indicates that he does not begin to recognize the responsibilities that go with the position he seeks, let alone the unique challenges that will be associated with serving as Donald Trump’s secretary of state. That’s more than concerning. That’s disqualifying.