KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
President-elect Donald Trump's pick for secretary of state spent all day on Capitol Hill. At a time of strained U.S.-Russia relations, Rex Tillerson was asked some tough questions from senators in both parties during his confirmation hearing. Tillerson, until recently, was CEO of ExxonMobil. He had extensive business dealings with Russia, ones that some senators say would pose a conflict of interest if he's confirmed.
Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, and she is with us now. Welcome to the program.
JEANNE SHAHEEN: Thank you. Nice to be with you.
MCEVERS: Thanks. You raised concern that Tillerson might be too soft on Russia given his business history, and today, Tillerson said he saw the value of U.S. sanctions on Russia even if they got in the way of ExxonMobil's business deals. He says if confirmed as secretary of state, he'll have a, quote, "frank and open dialogue with Russia." Do you now believe he can be tough on Russia when it's in the U.S.'s interest?
SHAHEEN: Well, I was a little concerned about his evasiveness on whether to pursue additional sanctions on Russia for their attacks in our election process. Yesterday, I, along with a number of other - my colleagues, including Senator McCain and Senator Cardin, introduced additional sanctions legislation on Russia for their interference in our elections. And he really was hesitant on that.
So I think we still have to see what his position is going to be. I was encouraged that he committed to continuing State Department programs that promote gender equity around the world. So you know, there were some answers that I was concerned about and some things that I was reassured by.
MCEVERS: Tillerson said he plans to sever ties completely with ExxonMobil if he's confirmed. He has promised to seek counsel if something comes up during his time of secretary of state that might present a conflict or even appear to present one. Do you think that that puts questions about conflicts of interest to rest for him?
SHAHEEN: Well, again, I actually asked him about this and about why he felt like that was important, and he said it was to address the conflicts of interests. And I am reassured by that. He still has some ties to sever that he's waiting until he actually gets confirmed.
But for me, it stands in stark contrast to what we've heard from President-elect Trump, which is that he's not going to divest of his vast business holdings. And so I think hopefully he will pay more attention to Mr. Tillerson.
MCEVERS: You also asked Tillerson about the president-elect's original proposal to ban Muslims from the United States. He says he does not support targeting any particular group when it comes to immigration. Was that a satisfactory answer to you?
SHAHEEN: It was. I appreciated his willingness to state his opposition to that Muslim immigration ban and to talk about the importance of working with moderate Muslim countries who had rejected radical Islam. I think that's important. And I think it does distinguish his position from what we heard from President-elect Trump during the campaign. And hopefully the president-elect will listen to Rex Tillerson if he's confirmed about this issue.
MCEVERS: Based on what you heard today from this nominee and your fellow senators, how would you characterize his chances of becoming secretary of state?
SHAHEEN: You know, I think, as you pointed out, he got very tough questions both from Democrats and Republicans. I think, as I said, there were some areas that I had concerns about. I was disappointed that he didn't seem willing to answer some questions about positions that he had taken when he was CEO at Exxon. I found that disappointing, but I also appreciated his commitment to our democratic values, to America's leadership in the world, to our former...
MCEVERS: Thank you very much.
SHAHEEN: ...International partnerships.
MCEVERS: Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, thank you very much.
SHAHEEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.