Laughter erupted Wednesday after former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who is President-elect Donald Trump's pick to become secretary of state, refused to answer a question asked by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
During Tillerson's confirmation hearing Wednesday, Kaine asked Tillerson about allegations that Exxon Mobil, the company he led for a decade, knew as early as the 1970s that the burning of fossil fuels posed a potential issue for the environment and, despite knowing this, continued to take a public stance opposed to that of many climate change studies and fund a number of outside groups that downplay or dismiss climate change.
While Trump has repeatedly called the issue of climate change a "lie perpetuated by the Chinese," Tillerson has taken a much softer approach. In the very same appearance Wednesday, Tillerson said he believes “the risk of climate change does exist, and the consequences could be serious enough that action should be taken," according to the Washington Post.
But Tillerson later refused to say whether Exxon Mobil was aware of that risk decades ago.
"I'm asking you whether those allegations about Exxon Mobil's knowledge of climate science and decision to fund and promote a view contrary to its awareness of the science, whether those allegations are true or false," Kaine said.
Tillerson pushed back on the question, saying he can't answer it because he longer works for the company. He retired from his Exxon Mobil post at the end of 2016, following his nomination to become the nation's top diplomat. But that didn't keep Kaine from pressing further.
The Virginia Democrat then asked Tillerson, "Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question or are you refusing to answer my question?"
"A little of both," Tillerson replied.
The response prompted laughter from those in the Senate hearing room. However, Kaine later noted that he "has a hard time believing" Tillerson lacks the knowledge to answer.