This is a special view on the confirmation hearings provided by POPVOX interns from Brown University. We hope you enjoy and learn from their fresh perspective and front-row seat on Capitol Hill.



On Wednesday, January 11, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a confirmation hearing for President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson.


What’s a confirmation hearing?

One of the Senate’s Constitutional duties is to provide advice and consent to the President for the appointment of federal officers. As representatives of the people, the Senate’s key role in confirming or rejecting the president-elect’s candidates serves as an important check on executive power. In each hearing, the members of a relevant Senate committee have the opportunity to question the nominee, hear the nominee’s case for serving the president, and listen to testimonies about the candidate.


What does Secretary of State do?

The Secretary of State is the United States’s chief diplomat and negotiates international treaties and agreements. He or she oversees the Department of State and the United States Foreign Service, and serves as a member of the president’s cabinet. The Secretary of State is also responsible for communicating US foreign policy objectives to the public and Congress.


Who is Rex Tillerson?

Rex Wayne Tillerson is the former chairman and CEO of the multinational oil and gas corporation, ExxonMobil, the eighth-largest company in the world by revenue. He worked for ExxonMobil for his entire adult life, starting as an engineer in 1975, and was the head of the company from 2006-2016. Tillerson was born in 1952 in Wichita Falls, Texas, later graduating from the University of Texas, Austin, with a degree in civil engineering.


How does the hearing work?

The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which leads the introduction of foreign policy legislation and foreign policy debate in the Senate, is in charge of the Secretary of State confirmation hearings. The committee is chaired by Sen. Bob Corker [R, TN] and the Ranking Member is Sen. Ben Cardin [D, MD]. Eleven Republicans and Ten Democrats currently serve on the committee.



Tillerson’s hearing had two rounds of questioning, and ran for nine hours. The line for the hearing began hours before the hearing started, snaking throughout the halls of the Dirksen Senate office building. Tillerson had a full house, with protesters, lobbyists, staffers, and interns packing into the room. The crowd was often vocal; activists frequently stood up, pleading with the committee to “Reject Rex” or to not put Exxon in charge of the State Department. Each time protesters interrupted, the proceedings stopped until Capitol Police had finished ejecting them.


POPVOX Confirmation Hearing Rex Tillerson Secretary of State Nominee President Elect Trump Protest


Though the committee hearing lasted for almost nine hours, the conversation returned to several main themes throughout the day: political experience, business ties, Russia, climate change, the role of American leadership in the world, and relations with allies. 

POPVOX Confirmation Hearing Rex Tillerson Senate Foreign Affairs Secretary of State President-Elect Trump

Tillerson the businessman

Some senators characterized Tillerson’s forty years of experience at ExxonMobil as an asset. Sens. John Cornyn [R, TX] and Ted Cruz [R, TX] who introduced Tillerson, as well as other Republican Senators on the committee spoke to the common skills between using soft power in diplomacy and working at the head of a multinational corporation. They also referenced the importance of trade as a diplomatic tool, and how Tillerson’s knowledge of the global economic environment could be an asset. Tillerson himself claimed his “engineer mindset” would allow him to follow the facts of a situation to logical courses of action.


Others were more skeptical of his credentials and the transferrability of his business skills. Sens. Bob Menendez [D, NJ], Cardin, asked about Tillerson’s pivot from focusing on profits and a group of stakeholders with narrow interests to him serving the broader interests of the American people through diplomacy.


The committee also discussed Exxon’s actions and relationships with various countries, including Russia. Sen. Jeff Merkley [D, OR] pressed Tillerson on ExxonMobil’s business dealings with such countries as Iran while the U.S. had imposed sanctions. Sen. Ed Markey [D, MA] pushed Tillerson on potential conflicts of interests, and commented that the statutory recusal period of one year may not be sufficient.


America’s role in the world

Echoing President-elect Trump’s campaign message that America needs to be made great again, many Republican senators (and Tillerson) focused on how America’s leadership role in the world needs to be restored. Tillerson and Sen. Corker stated that America needs to take a strong, leading role again. Tillerson underscored the need for the U.S. to re-engage with its allies and to commit to concrete actions and long-term solutions.


Trump & Tillerson

Tillerson spoke broadly about sharing Trump’s goals of defeating ISIS, holding allies accountable, and being tough on those who don’t comply. However, he did break from Trump’s views on a few issues:


  • NATO: Tillerson, in what seemed to contrast to statements made by President-elect Trump, highlighted the importance of honoring commitments made to protect fellow NATO members.

  • TPP: Tillerson said that he does not oppose controversial trade agreement. President-elect Trump opposes it.

  • Climate change: In response to questions from Sen. Merkley (and in contrast to previous statements from the President-elect), Tillerson said "the risk of climate change does exist, and that the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken.”

  • Torture: Asked if he would advise Mr. Trump that waterboarding and torture is illegal and immoral, Tillerson referred to statements of Sen. Jeff Sessions [R, AL] and Gen. James Mattis and said “I agree with what they said.”



Russia was a recurring theme in the hearing. Tillerson has deep ties to Russia from his time at ExxonMobil. A recipient of the Russian Order of Friendship, Tillerson stated that his understanding of how Russia thinks is an advantage. He stressed the need for open and frank dialogue, though the U.S. and Russia have differing value systems and are “not likely to ever be friends”.


In a particularly heated exchange with Sen. Marco Rubio [R, FL], Tillerson was pressed on whether he believed Russia’s military actions against civilians in Syria constituted war crimes. Though he said he did not have enough information, he acknowledged that Russia’s actions violated international norms and laws. Tillerson and Rubio would go on to clash over human rights later in the hearing.


On the front of the alleged cyberattacks conducted by Russia against the U.S. during the 2016 elections, Tillerson said that the reports were troubling. When asked about a larger, comprehensive policy on cybersecurity, Tillerson said that sanctions should be applied on a country-by-country basis, taking into consideration America’s other existing interests. Throughout the hearing, sanctions were a major issue, with Tillerson at times, calling them powerful tools and detrimental to American business interests.


Climate Change

Tillerson acknowledged the security risk that climate change poses, but noted that the type of actions that the U.S. should take is debatable. He was questioned at length by Sen. Tim Kaine [D, VA] about ExxonMobil’s purported role in obscuring the scientific consensus surrounding climate change. However, he said it was important to stay involved with climate agreements and that he looks forward to discussing his views with Trump.


Did you hear about dinosaurs at a hearing?

Yes, this was that confirmation hearing.


Wow, this is a lot. Anything else?

Yes, Tillerson hinted at his support of the State Department’s existing women’s rights initiatives when asked by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen [D, NH] who was the only Senator to bring up women’s issues.

Learn more about the sanctions bill discussed in the hearing:


Countering Russian Hostilities Act of 2017
Sponsor: Benjamin Cardin [D, MD]


Learn more about the hearing: