Donald Trump’s friendly posture toward the regime in Moscow, combined with Russia’s attempt to sway the 2016 presidential election, have caused alarm among Republican hawks. On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sought to clarify whether Rex Tillerson, former chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil and Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, would take a more aggressive position toward the regime than his boss.
For those on the fence, the results likely were not reassuring.
Tillerson, who received Russia’s Order of Friendship in 2013, was not totally inimical to vigorous measures. He voiced support for the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which allows for the imposition of sanctions against Russian human-rights abusers, and for the Global Magnitsky Act, which would extend its predecessor’s provisions to countries across the globe. (Both bills are named for Russian dissident Sergei Magnitsky, tortured to death by the Russian government.) He denounced Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and said that he would support sending military aid to beleaguered Ukrainian troops — a measure staunchly opposed by the Obama administration. He also reiterated America’s commitment to its obligations under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.
However, Tillerson refused to commit to supporting an extension of President Obama’s recent sanctions against Russian individuals and organizations involved in the attack on the recent election. He also rebuffed multiple attempts, most vigorously by Florida senator Marco Rubio, to label Vladimir Putin a “war criminal,” or to blame him for ordering the deaths of Russian dissidents, citing a “lack of information.” He expressed hope that Russia and the U.S. could work together on certain objectives.
Those latter comments mirrored, in part, Donald Trump’s, offered almost simultaneously as he conducted his first press conference as president-elect from Trump Tower in New York City: “If Putin likes Donald Trump, I think it’s an asset, not a liability,” said Trump, “because we have a terrible relationship with Russia, and Russia may really help us fight ISIS.”
Tillerson noted — to obvious concern from some senators — that he and Trump have not yet met to discuss the incoming administration’s policy toward Moscow.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee also pressed Tillerson on recent revelations that ExxonMobil conducted business with Iran from 2003 to 2005, while that country was under strict U.S. sanctions. (Tillerson was senior vice president from 2001 to 2004, then president and director from March 2004 until his promotion to chairman and CEO at the start of 2006.) Tillerson avoided staking out a position on whether it was acceptable for ExxonMobil to conduct business with a state sponsor of terror, instead emphasizing that the dealings were legal, since ExxonMobil worked through a European subsidiary, Infineum, which was not under sanctions restrictions. (Exxon owned a 50 percent share in Infineum at the time.)
Tillerson’s ties to Iran also raised questions about his lobbying activities. New Jersey senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat, challenged Tillerson on his claim that “to my knowledge, Exxon never directly lobbied against sanctions” against Iran. According to lobbying disclosure forms, ExxonMobil engaged in lobbying related to the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act of 2009 and the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010. “What message are you now going to be able to send to American businesses who are intent on pursuing their own interests at the expense of U.S. policies and potential political stability in foreign countries,” asked Menendez. Exxon maintains that it “provided information of the impact of the sanctions, but did not lobby against the sanctions.”
Are concerns about Tillerson’s more-conciliatory approach to Russia, his business history with Iran, and his potential conflicts of interest enough to sink his nomination? With Republicans in narrow control of the Senate, only three Republicans need to defect. During Wednesday’s hearing, Rubio said he was “discouraged” by some of Tillerson’s responses to questions about how to address Russian aggression.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will convene again next Wednesday for Nikki Haley’s confirmation hearing. The governor of South Carolina is Donald Trump’s proposed ambassador to the United Nations.