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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Senate Questions Trump's Secretary of State Nominee; Robert Gates Comments on Nomination Hearing. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired January 11, 2017 - 16:00   ET



SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D), CONNECTICUT: The president brags about killing people without trial, or the denial of rights to women in Saudi Arabia as a named human rights violation, or what's happening in Syria as a war crime.

Can you maybe give us a little bit of a sense of what countries today you would consider to be violators of human rights, or how you are going to make judgments about where the U.S. pursues human rights violators and where we don't?

Because I think it will be a surprise to a lot of people coming out of this hearing that you aren't ready today to call President Duterte a violator of human rights, or to call what's happening in Saudi Arabia a named violation of human rights under international law.

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE NOMINEE: Well, I think somewhere in your question there, Senator Murphy, was, in fact, the answer.

I am going to act on factual information. I'm not going to act on what people write about in the newspapers or even what people may brag they have done, because people brag about things that they may or may not have done. I'm going to act on the facts.

And, if confirmed, I'm going to have access to a lot of information that I don't have access today. It's just my nature to not prejudge events or prejudge and make conclusions or conclude that someone has, in fact, violated this norm or, in fact, now meets the standard to be labeled this until I have seen those facts myself.

That should in no way suggest that if those acts that you have described are backed up by the facts, I would agree with your labeling and characterization. I'm just not willing to do that on the record today because I have not seen that information.

So, please don't confuse that with my -- my standards are no different than yours.

MURPHY: But just -- let's take Philippines for an example.

I don't know that there's anybody on this committee that would deny that there are extrajudicial killings happening in Philippines. It's been widely reported. Our embassy has reported it. The president himself talks about it. What more information do you need before deeming the Philippines to be

a human rights violator? What's happening there is a massacre that's there for everyone to see.

TILLERSON: I'm sure the committee has seen a lot of evidence that I have not seen. I'm not disputing your conclusion. You're asking me to make a judgment on only what I'm being told. That's not how I make judgments.

MURPHY: So, what information in that case would you need? Who would you need to hear from?

TILLERSON: I would want to see the factual basis behind the statistics and the factual connection as to who is committing those acts.

MURPHY: Well, we don't have -- a lot of times, the factual evidence is reporting by objective observers on the ground.

I'm not initially sure you're going to get a videotape of an extrajudicial killing. So, oftentimes, the evidence is the objective reporting we get from sources on the ground inside a place like the Philippines.

TILLERSON: I will rely upon multiple sources to confirm what I am being told.

That is -- blame it on me being an engineer. It's just the engineer in me that I deal with facts and then I analyze and then I conclude. And I'm sure there's a lot of credible information out there that I simply haven't seen.

MURPHY: This is a question that often gets asked of members of Congress to judge their view of politics and conflict in the Middle East. It's a pretty simple one.

Do you believe that the Iraq War, not the conduct of the war, but the war itself was a mistake?

TILLERSON: I think I indicated in response, I believe it was to Senator Paul's question, that I think our motives were commendable, but we did not achieve the objectives there. We did not achieve greater stability. We did not achieve improved national security for the United States of America.

And those -- and that's just the events have borne that out. And at the time, I held the same view, that I was concerned, just as I was concerned before the decisions were made to go into Libya and change the leadership there. It's not that I endorsed that leadership, but that leadership had the place somewhat stable with a lot of bad actors locked up in prison.

Now all those bad actors are running around the world. So, it's just -- it's the question of -- it is a question that our ultimate goal has to be to change that type of oppressive leadership. It has to be, though, that we know what is coming after, or we have a high confidence that we can control what comes after, or influence it, and it will be better than what we just took out.


MURPHY: But which -- in this case, which motives are you referring to that were commendable?

TILLERSON: I think the concerns were that Saddam Hussein represented a significant threat to stability in that part of the world and to the United States directly.

And so, I understand that people had -- were looking at information that was available to them, information that's not available to me, at least at this point. So, I'm making this comment as a casual observer.

MURPHY: One last question, going back to Russia. You said in earlier -- answer to an earlier question that you wouldn't commit today to the continuation of sanctions against the Russians for their involvement in the U.S. presidential election.

But could you make a commitment to us today that if you deem sanctions to be the inappropriate policy, that you will recommend and argue for a substitute response for the interference in U.S. elections? Will you argue for a U.S. response even if you don't believe sanctions is the right policy?

MURPHY: Yes, yes.

If -- and all I have read is, again, the unclassified portions, but it is troubling. And if there is additional information that indicates the level of interference, it deserves a response.

MURPHY: Thank you.


Just to follow up, our embassies in countries have pretty massive capabilities that are well known. If, in the Philippines, for instance, our embassy there assessed to you with very high confidence, since you're not going to be able to be on the ground checking things out yourself in a 70,000-person organization, 75,000, and you're going to have to rely on people that, as you did as an engineer and certainly a CEO of a company, if they assess that extrajudicial killings were taking place, that would probably be enough evidence for you that he was a human rights violator, would it not be?

TILLERSON: In all likelihood, it would.

CORKER: Just to follow up on one other thing, I know this committee passed very strongly in a bipartisan way, and now it's been through multiple iterations of appropriations and now an authorization, a bill to end modern slavery, to work in partnership with others around the world.

And I say this because I visited a place in the Philippines where much of that is occurring. And thank you for reminding me. But would you -- do you plan to continue to support the effort that's been authorized here and has been appropriated towards to work in conjunction with the world community to end one of the greatest blights in the world today, and that is 27 million people in the world being enslaved, more than at any time in the world's history?

TILLERSON: I think it is part of America's moral clarity and our values that we must speak out, and not just speak out, but take action to cause countries that are allowing this to go on, or facilitating it, worse, to cause them to change that.

And I know that this is a particularly passionate issue to yourself and other members of the committee. And I want to enlarge it to human trafficking at large as well. Slavery and human trafficking have to be addressed, and America has to lead in this particular area.

CORKER: Thank you so much.

Senator Isakson.

SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON (R), GEORGIA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Mr. Tillerson, thank you very much for your candor and your respect you have exhibited for the committee and the process. We're proud of your nomination and commend you to the Senate.

I'm going to ask one question and then I'm going to waive the rest of my time so we can get a little rest. One of the important roles of the State Department, going back to the State Department for, is some of the soft power.

And part of our soft power is our ability to solve problems that nobody else can solve. Most recent example, Ebola. When the Ebola outbreak took place in West Africa, it was the CDC that created the mechanism by which we actually stopped Ebola.

And now we have a vaccine that will prevent Ebola, which is a great victory for humanity and a great victory for the process.

The money that done to treat the initial patients from West Africa was a special appropriation of the United States Senate and the House to create an emergency fund to deal with Ebola. During the same period of time, the State Department had referred a Lassa fever patient to the CDC, to Emory University, to take care of, and which they did.

There was no funds available for that Lassa payment. And to this date, Emory has not been reimbursed for that payment, for that treatment. My question is, it seems to be a good time for us to look at the CDC, which is the heart of the solution, and create a emergency fund reserve where we have an amount of money available to the CDC secretary that they can immediately go to use for an emergency like Ebola or like Lassa fever.

I am going to work to try and establish that this year. I hope, as the secretary of state, when you are confirmed, you will work with me to do that.


TILLERSON: I look forward to that, Senator, in engaging with you on it.

I think you're right. the CDC's response in the Ebola outbreak was remarkably well-managed. I would make an observation, because all of this at some point gets to somebody has got to pay for all this.

And in examining the -- how the World Health Organization did in these outbreaks, I think what it exposed was some deficiencies within the World Health Organization as well, that they were not able to respond. And that's where normally this was an outbreak that occurred in another part of the world, they should have been the first-responders to the scene.

But as you point out, CDC, as well as other U.S. assets, had to be put in those countries to assess that. So, I think it is worth an examination. As we're considering CDC's role, worth an examination of how that interfaces in these types of outbreaks, whether it's Ebola or the Zika virus? How is that interface working with the global health organizations as well?

ISAKSON: Thank you very much for your time and congratulations on your nomination.

CORKER: Senator Marking.


Mr. Tillerson, do you agree with president-elect Trump when he said -- quote -- "It wouldn't be a bad thing for us if Japan, South Korea, or Saudi Arabia acquired nuclear weapons"?

TILLERSON: Senator, I don't think anyone advocates for more nuclear weapons on the planet.

MARKEY: Donald Trump said it would not be a bad thing. Do you agree with that or disagree with that?

TILLERSON: I do not agree.

MARKEY: You do not agree.

Would you commit to working vigorously to ensure that no additional country on the planet obtains a nuclear weapons capacity?

TILLERSON: Senator, I think, if confirmed, it is a vital, one of the vital roles for the State Department to play in working in the National Security Council and in an interagency way has to be the pursuit of nuclear nonproliferation.

We just simply cannot back away from our commitment to see a reduction in the number of these weapons on the planet.


President-elect Trump recently said on Twitter that in his view the United States must -- quote -- "expand its nuclear capability."

When warned that this could trigger an arms race, he replied, "Let it be an arms race."

Do you agree with president-elect Trump that the United States should welcome a nuclear arms race with Russia or with China? Would that be a good thing for the United States?

TILLERSON: Senator, I think, as we are pursuing nonproliferation and we are also pursuing the enforcement of important agreements like New START, that we have to also approach those from a position of strength.

I think in the context of some of the quotes that you're running through here, the president-elect has also indicated a commitment to ensuring that the level of nuclear arms and capability that we are going to maintain under agreed treaties, that those capabilities must be maintained, and that from time to time that means we have got to renew them and bring them up to date and ensure that they are capable.

Otherwise, we now have an asymmetric arrangement with people we're negotiating with.

MARKEY: Right. Just, that's at odds with what he has been quoted publicly as saying, so, I just think it's important for us to hear you take the position that, in fact, negotiations towards reducing the nuclear threat, rather than having a new nuclear arms race, is much better for our country and the global security.

If you are confirmed, will you commit to protect the rights of all career employees of the State Department, so that they retain their right to speak with Congress?

TILLERSON: As pursuant to an open and effective dialogue with Congress, would encourage that issues are put on the table for discussion with Congress, yes.

MARKEY: You just had, I think, a great conversation with Senator Isakson about global health issues.

And one of our great achievements over the last couple of decades has been the establishment and investment in PEPFAR and U.S. leadership in the Global Fund to fight AIDS, T.B. and Malaria. Millions of lives have been saved and health infrastructure has been built in the developing world.

Could you discuss your view of those programs and your commitment to strengthening them in the years ahead?

TILLERSON: PEPFAR is just really one of the remarkable successes of the past decade or more, obviously begun under President Bush.

And I think what's notable about PEPFAR is, there are measurable results.

[16:19:06] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Jake Tapper. We're going to take a break away from this hearing for just a moment because I'm joined now by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates who introduced Rex Tillerson at his Senate hearing today.

Former Secretary Gates, thanks so much for joining us.


TAPPER: Credit or blame for the Tillerson nomination in some way lies with you. You're the one who first suggested it to the Trump transition team. Your consulting firm does some work for ExxonMobil. But you got to know him years before through the Boy Scouts.

GATES: That's right. Rex and I both have been in leadership positions with the Boy Scouts. He was president, a couple of years before I was, and frankly played a big role persuading me to take it on. So -- and after scouting events, as I have said at the hearing this morning, we would often spend several hours at the end of the day talking about international affairs and so on. So, when the president-elect asked me if it was a blank slate who would I recommend, I put Rex's name forward.

[16:20:01] TAPPER: What do you make of the concerns that you've heard expressed from some of the Democrats on the Senate foreign relations committee about Tillerson not expressing more outward condemnation of human rights in Saudi Arabia, human rights violations in the Philippines, whether or not Vladimir Putin is a war criminal?

GATES: Well, I think it's a difference between somebody who actually has responsibility and who understands that there are legal implications of those designations. So, if you're going to be the secretary of state, you have to take into account that when you say those things, unlike a senator who can say anything like that and there are no consequences, but if the secretary of state makes a pronouncement about that, about a country or about an individual, then there are legal implications in terms of actions the United States has to take as a consequence.

TAPPER: So, it's cautious.

GATES: So, I think it's being properly cautious and -- you know, I haven't watched a lot of the hearing, but it seems to me he's trying to communicate that, you know, we have completely shared -- he has completely shared values with those senators. But if he takes this job, if he's confirmed, he's going to end up having to make some decisions that have very real implications for our relationships with those countries.

TAPPER: You said something interesting in your introduction to Rex Tillerson this morning. You said this new administration must thread the need l between pushing back between Putin's aggression, meddling, interventionism, ambitions and bullying, and at the same time find a way to stop the dangerous downward spiral in our relationship with Russia. That's a tall order.

How do you do that? GATES: Well, it is a tall order, but I think -- I think it starts

with pushing back, and just my personal view. And I think one way you let the Russians and Putin know that they've stepped too far, first of all, would be to sort out our defense budget. And basically say, we're going to make some reinvests in defense because of Putin's actions, what he has said and what he has done with his own nuclear weapons, but also with his conventional forces.

And as a result, we are going to go ahead and fund modernization of our nuclear programs. We are going to do some additional things.

And I think there are some specific steps we can take in specific countries that push back. And -- but at the same time, communicating to the Russians, look, we need to figure out a way to break this downward spiral and we're willing to sit down and talk about that. I mean, that's what we did with the Soviets at the height of the Cold War.

TAPPER: CNN reported yesterday and since then many other news organizations have matched, "The New York Times", "Washington Post", "Wall Street Journal," et cetera, that the intelligence chiefs in their meeting with President-elect Trump on Friday provided information that suggested that there was information out there, claims being made by Russia -- however accurate the claims are who knows -- but claims being made by Russians about potentially compromising information about Mr. Trump's financial, political and personal.

Does that concern you at all? I mean, you deal with intelligence heads or have dealt with intelligence heads for decades when they would -- for them to bring such information to President Obama and President-elect Trump, what would that suggest to you?

GATES: I learned a long time ago not to talk about stuff that I don't know anything about. So, anything I would say would be pure speculation. I think that, you know, it depends on the provenance of whoever was providing the information. I just don't know any particulars, so I'm really not in a position to judge.

TAPPER: Are you concerned as somebody who sounds as though you would be slightly more hawkish at least initially with Vladimir Putin in terms of building up the Pentagon and someone whose career has been challenging Russia in various ways, whether at the CIA or the Defense Department or at the NSA -- are you concerned about some of the rhetoric we've heard from Donald Trump, not from Rex Tillerson necessarily, but from Donald Trump, about having a better relationship with Russia? To the point that he -- I don't think he's ever criticized Putin.

GATES: I would like to -- I -- he gets the part about breaking the downward spiral in relationship really well.

TAPPER: Right.

GATES: Frankly, I would like to hear a little bit more on the push backside. TAPPER: Rex Tillerson is somebody who has enormous success in the

business world. That is something that some on the committee seem to be concerned about, can he view the world in a less real politic way, not just alliances, but human rights, promoting democracy? ExxonMobil -- and it wasn't his job to do so -- is not a company that is out there promoting human rights. It's doing its function which is getting fossil fuels and making money.

Because you know him so well, why does that not concern you?

GATES: Because I have seen a side of Rex Tillerson that people in the business world wouldn't necessarily have seen. I've seen -- I've seen him get up in front of a group of a thousand or 1,500 volunteers in the scouting movement and talk with passion about American values, about human rights, about democracy and what we stand for as a country.

[16:25:11] And I think those -- those feelings run deep in Rex Tillerson. I think he can make the pivot from executive to secretary of state without any difficulty at all.

TAPPER: Several senators questioned how much Rex Tillerson -- and this wasn't specific to him, this question has been asked of other cabinet nominees, but how much he would be able to stand up to President-elect Trump when he becomes president. You know both men. You know Rex Tillerson much better. Will he be able to stand up to President Trump?

GATES: One of the things I found encouraging frankly -- and I introduced General John Kelly for homeland security yesterday. One of the things I found encouraging about the nominations of Jim Mattis at Defense, Rex Tillerson at state, and John Kelly at homeland security is I know all three of these men. Two of them worked for me.

And I know they are tough, independent, strong minded individuals who will tell the president exactly what he needs to know, not necessarily what he wants to know. They're not going to be intimidated. They're not going to be rolled. And so, I think frankly it's a positive thing that the president-elect wants people of that caliber around him who he knows are going to tell him exactly what they think.

TAPPER: One last question for you. Since you know him through the Boy Scouts, obviously one of the most controversial points of the Boy Scout history in the last decade or so had to do with the acceptance of gay scout leaders and gay boy scouts. What role did Rex Tillerson play in that discussion and in that debate if that was part of his time in the Boy Scouts?

GATES: I think that -- I think Rex played a big role in calming the waters in 2013 after the decision was made to allow gay youth to participate in scouting. The decision to allow gay leaders to happen -- to serve occurred on my watch as national president and all I can tell you is Rex was very supportive. And the way we did it, we were able to keep virtually all of our major church sponsors on board.

TAPPER: Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, always a pleasure to have you. Thank you so much.

GATES: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: You check out his book. He's not here to hawk it, he's here to hawk Rex Tillerson. But check out his book. It's quite excellent.

Let's return now to the confirmation hearing for Trump's pick for secretary of state. Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee still questioning him right now.

SEN. CORY BOOKER (D), NEW JERSEY: And under the Bush administration, there were about 25 countries registered. All of them were Muslim countries that were in that NSEERS program, except for one, which was North Korea.

That was then the policy of the Obama administration was to zero-out that registry. What -- what -- is that something you would support, the NSEERS mechanism is still there? And how would that affect our ability to deal with countries that are -- we're working so closely with, such as Jordan, which is my example?

TILLERSON: Senator, I appreciate the question. I'm not familiar enough to be able to address it specifically. I'm happy to get back to you with an answer, though.

BOOKER: Sir, I appreciate that. How does it affect, in your opinion, our ability to work with Muslim countries? For example, when people like General Michael Flynn has publicly called Islam "a political ideology, not a religion"? Saying that it's like cancer, and writing that fear of Muslims is rational. That can't be constructive to our foreign policy, to our diplomacy with key countries in Southeast Asia as well as the Middle East.

TILLERSON: My experience, Senator, has been the best relationships in which you can make progress on tough issues is built on mutual respect of one another, which then leads to hopefully mutual trust. Just as we want to be trusted, as -- whether we're Christians or we practice the faith of Judaism or whatever our religious faith may be. And in this country, we have the freedom to practice that in any way we want.

We want to be respected for that as well. But that relationship has to be built on a mutual -- a mutual respect for each other, and not a judgment about one's faith.

BOOKER: Sir, I'm really grateful -- not that I'm surprised at all, but I'm grateful for you putting forth those very important values.

Could you answer me this: What do you think it does to our enemies' ability to push forth more propaganda about the West or incite more radicalism when you hear these evil terrorist organizations? What do you think it does to their recruiting efforts when rhetoric like that comes from the highest levels of leadership in our country?

[16:30:00] TILLERSON: Well, I think, you know, these radical Islamic factions that we've been talking about, whether it's ISIS or Al Qaida, they have broad networks, obviously, that they're putting in place.