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Senators grill Trump nominee Tillerson on Russia, sanctions, conflicts of interest

Former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson was the subject of relentless questioning by members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, as lawmakers grappled with another controversial cabinet pick with extensive financial ties and relationships around the world.

As lawmakers tried to get a handle on the direction Donald Trump's foreign policy might take, the most persistent line of questioning was on Russia. Senators probed Tillerson, a long-time business partner and friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, to get a sense of how he would handle the increasingly adversarial relationship between Washington and Moscow. As the hearing proceeded, senators on the left and right also struggled to understand whether Tillerson's 40 years as a businessman was an asset or an opening for major conflicts of interest.

Tillerson's long history in the fossil fuel industry and Trump's climate change skepticism also drew a series of questions on climate change and the environment. Environmental activists who traveled to Washington from around the country interrupted the hearing and took to the streets in front of the Capitol to protest Tillerson's nomination. To the frustration of many Democrats, Tillerson did not directly address questions about Exxon's alleged knowledge of the human impacts of climate change. However, the businessman agreed that the United States must maintain "its seat at the table on conversations around how to address threats of climate change," like COP21.

Committee chairman, Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) gave his general assessment of the hearing, telling reporters, "Overall, the questions have been at a very high level. I think the committee has conducted itself well. I think Mr. Tillerson, especially for someone who comes from a totally different world...I think he is handling himself well." Given the importance of the appointment, Corker said he would convene a second day of hearings if necessary.

Prior to the hearing, there was speculation that if a few Republicans defect, Trump's Secretary of State appointment could be held up. Much of the Republican opposition to Tillerson has revolved around his friendly relationship with Russia and broader concerns about Trump cozying up to Putin. If two Republicans defect in the committee, Tillerson's nomination will still be sent to the floor of the Senate for consideration, but his prospects for confirmation will look dimmer.

One of the harshest lines of questioning came from Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has expressed concerns about Tillerson's nomination. In a brutal line of attack, Rubio confronted the nominee to state whether he believed Vladimir Putin is "a war criminal."

Tillerson deflected, saying he "would not use that term."

Unsatisfied, Rubio pressed further, vividly describing recent Russian attacks against civilians in Aleppo, Syria, and the attack in the Czech capital of Grozny 17 years ago. In both cases, Russia "used battlefield weapons against civilians," Rubio argued, reaching his question, "You are still not prepared to say that Vladimir Putin has violated the rules of war and has conducted war crimes...?”

Tillerson rejected the bait, saying, "Those are very, very serious charges to make and I want to have much more information before reaching that conclusion."

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) commented that it was a "tough" exchange, but Tillerson's response was appropriate for someone seeking to become the nation's top diplomat. "It would have been big news with big implications had he answered the question any other way," Flake said. "I think it shows his diplomacy."

After Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the ranking member on the committee, introduced a new bipartisan sanctions bill against Russia on Tuesday, he and other cosponsors of the bill were eager to interrogate Tillerson on whether or not he would advise Trump to use those sanctions or simply ignore them. The new sanctions were meant to directly address the cyber attacks Russia carried out during the 2016 election and Russia's continued interference in Ukraine and the bill comes less than two weeks after President Obama issued new sanctions.

Tillerson repeatedly called economic sanctions "a powerful tool" in diplomacy, but effectively dodged a direct response to senators questions on lifting existing sanctions. During the campaign, Donald Trump indicated that he would reconsider Obama-era sanctions against Russia in response to the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and may also consider recognizing Crimea as a part of Russia.

Directly confronted about congressionally mandated sanctions, Tillerson responded as most executive branch officials would, namely, he wants to give the president as much leverage as possible and not be constrained by Congress in the field of foreign affairs. A sanctions bill from Congress "leaves the executive branch no latitudes or flexibility" in addressing another nation, Tillerson said. "Giving the executive the tool is one thing, requiring the executive to use it without any other considerations, I would have concerns about."

A number of Democrats expressed deep reservations about Tillerson's ambiguous position on new Russian sanctions. Some indicated that his position may be related to previous business interests at Exxon Mobil. Throughout the hearing, Tillerson denied that his position at Exxon has anything to do with his views on sanctions. He stated unequivocally that (to his knowledge), "Exxon never directly lobbied against sanctions." But one member of the committee, Sen. Jeff Merkeley (D-Ore.) held up a packet of lobbying papers filed by Exxon in response to U.S. sanctions on Russia's energy sector.

At the time the sanctions were imposed, Exxon had a massive joint venture with Rosneft, Russia's state-owned oil enterprise, for an Arctic oil exploration project. In a 2015 filing with the SEC, Exxon Mobil claimed it had lost $1 billion as a result of the Obama administration's sanctions. Around the same time, Exxon representatives reportedly met with officials at the White House 20 times. The meetings were allegedly related to Exxon's desire to have the sanctions loosened. Tillerson said on Wednesday that he does not remember that many meetings.

"We have a divergent view on the nature of sanctions," Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) told reporters after questioning Tillerson. "To the extent that Exxon did participate with the lobbying disclosures in lobbying against sanctions, there is a gulf between the nominee's statements in the past." Menendez argued that the nominee is walking a thin line, and his position on sanction could "undermine" their effectiveness in the future. "I believe [sanctions are] one of the incredibly important peaceful tools of diplomacy that can be used, and if you're going to undermine them then you don't have very much left in your arsenal. That's a real concern."

Additionally, under Tillerson's leadership, Exxon conducted business with countries accused of violating human rights, including Syria, Equitorial Guinea, Angola. Exxon was also accused of using a third party to conduct business with Iran, in violation of U.S. sanctions. Tillerson addressed the allegations by explaining the business principles that guided the company's interest in those countries: "Contract sanctity...rule of law ...and country stability."

As far as coordinating the transition at the State Department, current officials say the Trump team is behind schedule and not very engaged in the effort. In an interview with PBS Newshour earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry said he had not yet met with his successor, Tillerson. Additionally, he said there has not been a lot of "high-level exchange" between the outgoing and incoming team at State.

"Given how many genuine conflicts and crises there are around the world, it is my hope that the senior leadership transition at the Department of State would accelerate, that they would talk more frequently and more purposefully at the highest level," Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) commented. The senator explained that Trump's transition at State is behind schedule, and is taking place "in a less organized way and in a less disciplined way" than previous transitions.

The Trump team did not prepare for the challenges of appointing a cabinet of outsiders, particularly given the number of billionaires from high-level private sector positions. The process involves intensive, lengthy government reviews, including the ethical reviews that still have not been completed by some of Trump's nominees.

"They did not submit ethics disclosures and begin the FBI background check processes months ago, as happened in previous transitions, because the president-elect conducted the selection process for Secretary of State more as a reality TV show episode of Celebrity Apprentice than a disciplined process that produced candidates," Coons argued.

Despite his complaints about the process, Coons gave Tillerson credit for his efforts to be transparent and publicly address potential conflicts of interest. "The fact that Tillerson has severed ties with Exxon, sold all of his stock and holdings, is better than what we've gotten so far from the president-elect," Coons said. Earlier on Wednesday, Trump announced in a press conference that he will not be releasing his taxes and that he would set up a semi-blind trust, turning over his business and assets to his two adult sons.

For all the concern about possible conflicts of interest arising if the former Exxon CEO takes the helm of the State Department, Tillerson received high-level endorsements from former CIA director and Defense Secretary Bob Gates and former Georgia Senator and arms control icon Sam Nunn at the outset of his confirmation hearing.

"[I] consider Mr. Tillerson's experience and knowledge in business as an asset," Nunn said, "as well as his knowledge of Russia. I think those are both assets not liabilities."

When he was in the Senate, Nunn co-authored legislation to help the Soviet Union dismantle weapons of mass destruction and secure the vast radioactive materials it possessed as the Soviet system was collapsing in 1991. It was a costly program and politically risky, requiring the United States to team up with its Cold War enemy. Nunn advised the next administration to pursue a pragmatic approach to Moscow, urging dialogue at a time when the United States and NATO cut off most channels of military and policy discussions with Russia in response to the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

"It is dangerous for the United States and Russia and for the world to have virtually no dialogue for reducing nuclear risk, and very little military to military communication," Nunn said, adding a poignant warning. "If this continues and we are guided by zero-sum logic, on both sides we and Russia may be rewarded at some point with catastrophe."

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) echoed Nunn's sentiments. "I don't want Russia to slip...into the category of an enemy," Johnson said, explaining that having a functional relationship with the other nuclear superpower "more often than not, that's the right arc of history."

The Republican senator believes that Tillerson will approach the complex relationship with Moscow with eyes wide open and businessman's willingness to accept the facts. "It's a very realpolitik outlook. That's what a businessperson brings to the table," Johnson noted.

A date has not yet been set for the Senate to vote on Tillerson's nomination, but the majority leader has indicated his intent to get a core of Trump's cabinet confirmed by January 20, inauguration day.

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