Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Local Newscast
Hear the latest from the WRKF/WWNO Newsroom.

Lawmakers Prepare For Tough Confirmation Battle For Rex Tillerson


Lawmakers have a busy week ahead assessing President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet nominations. On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing about Rex Tillerson, who's been tapped as secretary of state. Tillerson is a former CEO of ExxonMobil. He's done business around the world. There will be plenty of questions about that, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: This could be a tough confirmation battle for Tillerson. He's already laid out a divestment plan to distance himself from his former company. And he's made the rounds on Capitol Hill for private meetings with senators. Lawmakers still have a lot of questions about his life's career, doing business with autocrats in oil-rich countries, including with Russia's Vladimir Putin.


BEN CARDIN: He did business with Russia. He was able to get things done there. And those relationships will be subject to questioning during the confirmation hearings.

KELEMEN: That's Senator Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee and someone who's been tough on Russia over the years. He supports U.S. sanctions, some of which got in the way of Tillerson's business dealings in Russia. So his questions will be about what the former ExxonMobil chief believes now about that. The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Bob Corker, isn't worried.


BOB CORKER: My guess is that people are going to realize that his views on Russia are not, in any way, out of the mainstream.

KELEMEN: Speaking at a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor, Corker predicted Tillerson will win over senators at his confirmation hearing.


CORKER: I predict that people are going to see what a distinguished individual this person is. I think people are going to view him as a great patriot, personally. This guy was an eagle scout at a young age. He's been at same company for 41 and a half years.

KELEMEN: Tillerson did seem to make a positive impression on Cardin, the Maryland Democrat, who says the former ExxonMobil CEO assured him he supports an international climate change agreement.


CARDIN: That was encouraging to hear. And that he stressed for me his background in science and that he is a believer in science. That also was encouraging.

KELEMEN: If confirmed, though, Tillerson would have to carry out the president's policies. And Donald Trump once described climate change as a hoax. That raises another question, how much influence Tillerson will have in shaping U.S. foreign policy. Corker believes it will be a lot. And he says Tillerson will be able to figure out, in his words, how the palace guard operates around the president, and will be able to pick his own team at the State Department.


CORKER: Obviously, Tillerson, having been the CEO of a global enterprise with 70,000 employees, understands that you can't function well without a team. And he's been granted those freedoms to put the people in place that he needs to put in place.

KELEMEN: Career diplomats are hoping he'll look to them. The president of the American Foreign Service Association, Barbara Stephenson, wrote an open letter about that.


BARBARA STEPHENSON: It encourages the new secretary to count on, us to rely on us, to use us and to count on us to give him our unvarnished, best advice, which comes from a deep knowledge of the places where we work, from having the languages that we speak, and that we will give him our best advice and counsel and he should count on us.

KELEMEN: Tillerson hasn't been to the State Department since he was tapped for the job, but he has spoken with the current secretary, John Kerry. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.