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Senate Panel To Evaluate Whether An Oilman Can Be A Good Statesman

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Rex Tillerson is going to Capitol Hill today to take questions from senators to see if he's fit to be the next secretary of state. Front and center will be Tillerson's history as the CEO of ExxonMobil. Senators will have to decide if that experience would be instrumental in furthering U.S. diplomacy or whether it could be a liability. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: For four decades, Rex Tillerson worked his way up through the ranks at Exxon, an energy giant with operations in dozens of countries. And that will serve him well, says Stephen Hadley, who was a national security adviser in the Bush administration.

STEPHEN HADLEY: You know, he's a man with a lot of experience in some of the most difficult parts of the world. He has done deals in difficult parts of the world. He has a network of contacts with people. And I think he will be able to make that experience and those contacts available to the new president. I think he's going to be a very strong and effective secretary of state.

KELEMEN: ExxonMobil is one of the clients of a consulting firm run by Hadley, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Defense Secretary Bob Gates. Rice and Gates encouraged President-elect Donald Trump to tap Tillerson for the job. And Hadley thinks Tillerson will make a good impression on senators.

HADLEY: He is a man of great integrity. He's an Eagle Scout, and that's the impression that he gives you. You know, he's a duty, honor, country guy, and I think the American people are going to like what they see.

KELEMEN: We speak in the noisy corridors of the U.S. Institute of Peace, where policymakers incoming and outgoing were holding a daylong conference. Activists in the room, including Paul O'Brien of Oxfam America, had different thoughts about how Tillerson can make the jump from ExxonMobil to the State Department.

PAUL O'BRIEN: Exxon has made deals in places like Equatorial Guinea and Angola where they have had sustained partnerships with corrupt and authoritarian dictators for a very long period of time. Their motive was don't worry so much about the governance, just make sure that the shareholders profit. That is precisely the wrong agenda to bring to the obligations of a secretary of state.

KELEMEN: Tillerson has agreed to sever ties with ExxonMobil with a $180 million payout. He's also promising to divest all his company shares if confirmed. Still, O'Brien wants senators on the Foreign Relations Committee to get a better sense of whether he's ready to look at the world in a different way.

O'BRIEN: That is a form of divestment of his past that he has to demonstrate in these hearings that he's willing to do in order to promote the values that the United States has fought for. Pretty much since the end of the Second World War.

KELEMEN: Senators have already been asking Tillerson about his close business dealings with Russia, and he says in his prepared remarks that he's clear-eyed about that. Russia must be held to account for its recent actions, he says, and NATO allies have a right to be alarmed about Moscow. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer is raising another potential source of controversy. Reports said ExxonMobil had indirect business dealings with Iran.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: Did Mr. Tillerson go around our Iran sanctions simply to line Exxon's pockets? That would be a very bad thing. The American people ought to know about it before the Senate has to vote to confirm.

KELEMEN: ExxonMobil says it was in compliance with all U.S. sanctions laws. Democrats don't want to rush the confirmation process. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Republican Bob Corker, has promised to give lawmakers the time they need to question Tillerson all day today and tomorrow if needed. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBIENT JAZZ ENSEMBLE SONG, "THE JOURNEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.