Tillerson for State: What we know and why some are concerned about his ties to Russia

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FILE PHOTO -  Chairman and chief executive officer Rex W. Tillerson speaks at a news conference following the Exxon Mobil Corporation Shareholders Meeting in Dallas, Texas, May 28, 2008.  REUTERS/Mike Stone/File Photo - RTX2UQYG

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JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s a post first officially held by Thomas Jefferson. The secretary of state is America’s top diplomat.

Today, President-elect Trump tapped the CEO of the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company for the job.

So, who is Rex Tillerson, and what does the pick tell us about the Trump agenda?

We’re joined now by John Hamre. He is the president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a thank tank in Washington, D.C., where Tillerson is a member of the board of trustees. Hamre served as deputy secretary of defense during the Clinton administration. Nicholas Burns was a career diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to NATO. He’s now a professor at Harvard University. And Steve Coll is the author “Private Empire: Exxon Mobil and American Power.” He’s also a staff writer for “The New Yorker” magazine and the dean of the School of Journalism at Columbia University.

Welcome, all three of you, back to the program.

Steve Coll, to you first. You wrote in The New Yorker this weekend that Mr. Tillerson’s life, you said, has been shaped by to institutions, the Boy Scouts and Exxon Mobil, a company you describe as ruthless and unusually aggressive.

Is that a contradiction?

STEVE COLL, Author, “Private Empire: Exxon Mobil and American Power”: No.

I think he comes from the standard oil tradition of ruthless business competition rooted in strong, strong values and a kind of adherence to the rule of law, modeled by John D. Rockefeller, the original founder of Standard Oil.

I think the most important part of his career is that it’s all been at one place, 40 years at Exxon Mobil. Now that he’s been nominated for secretary of state, we really don’t have any record of his views about America’s place in the world. We only have a record of his views about Exxon Mobil’s place in the world, which is different, I hope.

And so there’s a whole series of questions now in front of us. What does he think about promoting human rights? What does he think about promoting democracy? These are not — is he worried about Russia’s influence in Europe? These are not questions that he’s had to address, and that makes him a very unusual nominee for secretary.

Typically, even nominees who have come and gone from industry have built up a record of views about these fundamental questions of foreign policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Hamre, as we said, you know Rex Tillerson, having served on your board at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

What is your understanding of his view of the United States’ role in the world?

JOHN HAMRE, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Well, I have known Rex well. I have known him for 11 years. He’s been a very active member of our board.

He’s always engaged substantively in our discussions about foreign policy. He’s remarkably insightful. He has more experience as a CEO than most political figures in Washington. He’s able to lead conversations in front of some of the most impressive people of our history in foreign policy, people like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

He fits squarely in the tradition of American realism, a pragmatic, centrist realism. He sees the leadership of America as shaping a better world. He actively believes strongly in American values, due process, rule of law. But he’s also very pragmatic. He wants to know what other people think. He listens carefully.

That’s one of the most important qualities, he listens so well. So you’re going to find a very fine secretary in Rex Tillerson.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nicholas Burns, based on what you know of Rex Tillerson, what do you know and what are your concerns?

NICHOLAS BURNS, Harvard University: Well, he’s an impressive man, by all accounts.

And he’s run our largest corporations. He has had significant managerial and international experience as a negotiator. That is going to stand him in good stead. He was endorsed today publicly, very strongly, by former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, Former Secretary of State Condi Rice. I admire both of those people. Those are serious recommendations.

But, Judy, I think there is going to be a real challenge to his nomination, and that’s his closeness to the Russian regime and what he’s been saying about Russian policy. And I think the backdrop here to his Senate confirmation will be the extraordinary statements made by Donald Trump about Russia during the campaign.

I don’t think we have had in 70 years a presidential candidate, and now a president-elect, so accommodating to Russia. No criticism by Donald Trump about Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. No criticism about Russia’s division of the Donbass of Ukraine. No criticism of Russia’s harassment of our NATO allies, Poland and the Baltic states. And no criticism of this barbaric Russian bombing of the civilian population of Aleppo.

A lot of people feel we should be containing Putin, and there’s a great concern that Donald Trump and General Flynn, the new national security adviser, and perhaps Mr. Tillerson — we don’t know yet — he has a right to speak on behalf of his own views — that this administration will be too tilted to make excuses for Putin. We might have a weak policy.

That’s where I think the senators are going to focus in January.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s hard to know what Donald Trump believes, but, Steve Coll, based on your reporting of Rex Tillerson and Exxon Mobil, what do you see as his attitude towards Russia? We know he’s grown close to Vladimir Putin. He’s received an award from him.

STEVE COLL: Well, he’s been an effective negotiator on behalf of the shareholders of Exxon Mobil, but now he’s being asked to think about Russia it in an entirely different way.

And I agree completely with Ambassador Burns’ critique. This is a very dangerous moment in Europe. And part of the reason is because Putin has been pushing the boundaries of Western tolerance.

Also, Trump’s election is part of a wave of populism and the strengthening of authoritarian regimes around the world that is really going to challenge the United States and its values. I worry about Russia. I also worry about the global human rights movement.

You know, right around the world today, there are human rights activists, democracy activists, civil society activists that have traditionally relied on the secretary of state’s voice speaking up for them when they’re under pressure. And the State Department pushes a lot of funding, including into authoritarian regimes, to support this kind of activity, human rights research and democracy organizations.

So, where is Mr. Tillerson on these issues? I have no idea. He has spent 40 years managing Exxon Mobil’s place in the world, and it will be very important to hear him speak forthrightly, because he’s now, after the president, going to be the most important voice on behalf of American values in the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Hamre, you described Rex Tillerson as a centrist.

What do you know about him that would assuage some of these concerns, first about Russia?

JOHN HAMRE: Well, I will agree with what both Nick and Steve have said that we face a very challenging time with Russia.

Boy, that’s why I’m so glad that Rex is there, because he knows them so well. I mean, knowing someone and agreeing with someone are two completely different things. Rex does know Russia very well. He knows President Putin very well. He knows the dynamics within Russia very well. Of course he’s going to have to lay out his thinking during his nomination hearing.

I’m not at all worried that Rex is going to stand up for America or American values.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Nicholas Burns, I want to ask you to respond to that, but also move on to Iran, because there have been questions raised about what Rex Tillerson would do with regard to U.S. posture toward Iran, and the nuclear — the nuclear deal.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, I do agree with John that Rex Tillerson’s track record is very encouraging as a centrist, as a pragmatic person, and as a real leader of a big, complex organization.

I think those are all in good stead. My questions aren’t about him. They’re about the president-elect and his extraordinary statements. And, Judy, on Iran, Donald Trump has been saying that — this is the nuclear deal that President Obama negotiated is the worst deal in the history of the world.

It’s going to be very difficult for a Trump administration to disengage the United States from the nuclear deal, because, if we do that, I’m convinced that Germany, France, and Britain will not walk out with us. They want to see this deal through.

And if we walk out, then, of course, Iran would already have received sanctions relief, but Iran then could walk away on its own and go back to resuming its nuclear program. I think that’s a very bad outcome.

And I think a smart decision — and you will have pragmatic people like General Mattis at Defense and Rex Tillerson at State to tell the president-elect that a smart decision is going to be to stay with the nuclear deal, but try to limit Iranian behavior in the Sunni world, and support those countries that are victims of Iranian aggression.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steve Coll, quickly, is there something you can shed — that would shed light on Rex Tillerson and his posture toward Iran from your reporting?

STEVE COLL: Well, he has been realistic in seeking stability in the Middle East. He has advocated for a world that is managed, rather than disrupted.

He is skeptical about sanctions, though his allies have clarified in the last few days that he’s more worried about enforcing them than imposing them, but they are a very important instrument of American foreign policy that he has often advocated against.

Now, in his public role, he may have to clarify his views about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, quickly, again, John Hamre, and just finally, if we look to Russ Tillerson — I’m sorry — to Rex Tillerson in terms of U.S. policy towards Iran, toward Russia overall, what should Americans think? Is this a man who is going to do exactly what Donald Trump wants, or will he speak up to Donald Trump when he disagrees with him?

JOHN HAMRE: Well, I have no doubt that Rex Tillerson will give his private counsel to the president, president-elect, in a very direct manner.

I think he will be quite influential, frankly, with the president-elect. He’s not a man who is shy of sharing his views once he has reached them. We really don’t need to worry about Rex Tillerson. I promise you. This is a man of great character.

And he is going to have a challenging environment in this administration. He will do well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Hamre, Nicholas Burns, Steve Coll, we thank you all.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you.

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