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What We Learned (And Didn’t) About Rex Tillerson At His Confirmation Hearing

From a little after 9 a.m. until a bit after the 6 o’clock dinner hour on Wednesday, Rex Tillerson of Irving, Texas, sat before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and did not break eye contact with the assembled lawmakers, or his impassive facial expression.

Without so much as raising one of his formidable eyebrows, Tillerson, Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state and the former CEO of Exxon Mobil, responded to questions on whether Russia had committed war crimes, whether the company had (by proxy) lobbied on behalf of the Russian government against U.S. sanctions, if he favored the creation of a national Muslim registry and if he thought the Philippines’ bloody war on drugs was an appropriate governmental action.

To all these questions Tillerson said that he would need more facts. “I know you have access to information that I do not,” Tillerson said of his reasoning during an exchange with Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida over the Philippines question.

“It’s from the Los Angeles Times,” Rubio replied, giving his source for the 6,200 killings of suspected drug dealers and users that have taken place in that country since the summer.

Tillerson comes to his new life as a presidential nominee after a career at Exxon Mobil that began in 1975 (then, simply “Exxon”). His academic training was as an engineer, and his refrain throughout Wednesday’s hearing that he would need more information before coming to a conclusion on some of the proffered questions seemed to reflect that background. In a room filled with politicians, Tillerson appeared distinctly disinclined toward their profession’s inclination to construct ideological through lines or to articulate how hypothetical events might be handled. The Trumpian/Tillersonian Doctrine of Foreign Affairs was not immediately discernible from the day’s proceedings — Tillerson answered often that things would need to be taken on a case-by-case basis after receiving the facts on the ground.

Tillerson said his view on Russia was that “we’re not likely to ever be friends” but that “there is scope to define a different relationship that can bring down the temperature around the conflicts we have today.” But when questioned, he wouldn’t take a hard stance on whether sanctions against Russia should be upheld, saying that such measures could negatively affect American business interests. He also wouldn’t commit to labeling Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal.”

Tillerson said he would have taken a harder line on Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea than the Obama administration did, including providing weapons and intelligence to Ukraine. “I would have recommended that Ukraine take all of the military assets that it had available, put them on the eastern border,” Tillerson said. He also promised a “full review” of the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump has said he wanted to rip up. Tillerson said he did not oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which the president-elect has said he does.

But while Tillerson was able to voice stances or approaches on particular issues, he left a number of senators cold on what his State Department’s overarching vision might be and where his instincts would lie — with American business or with American diplomacy.

Rubio, seemingly restored to peak prosecutorial vigor after the winter break, was the originator of many of the day’s most combative turns of questioning, and many of them centered on Tillerson’s close relationship, from his days at the oil company, with Putin.

Rubio’s first words to Tillerson were on the issue of Russian hacking in the 2016 election. “Welcome, Mr. Tillerson,” Rubio began. “Do you believe during the 2016 presidential campaign Russian intelligence services directed a campaign of active measures involving the hacking of emails, the strategic leak of these emails, the use of internet trolls and the dissemination of fake news with the goal of denigrating a presidential candidate and also undermining faith in our election process?”

Tillerson acceded that the situation involving Russia and the election “clearly is troubling.”

But by the end of the day, it seemed as though Tillerson hadn’t yet convinced Rubio of his suitability. Rubio is a key vote for the nomination to be approved by the committee — Tillerson’s nomination could be referred to the full Senate without the committee’s endorsement — and after the hearing, Rubio refused to say how he would vote. Rubio said Tillerson had failed in not articulating strong enough denouncements of human rights abuses by Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines. The senator noted to the nominee that he’d been pleased that Tillerson’s statement to the committee included the idea of America’s need to interact with the rest of the world with “moral clarity.”

But “we can’t achieve moral clarity with rhetorical ambiguity,” Rubio said. “If confirmed by the Senate and you run the Department of State, you’re going to have to label countries and individuals all the time.”

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.