Donald Trump's secretary of state pick Rex Tillerson takes firm line on Russia

Former ExxonMobil executive Rex Tillerson testifies during his confirmation hearing for Secretary of State, Jan 11, 2017.
Former ExxonMobil executive Rex Tillerson testifies during his confirmation hearing for Secretary of State, Jan 11, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said on Wednesday (Jan 11) he favoured maintaining current US sanctions against Russia for now and said Nato allies were right to be alarmed by Moscow’s aggression, but he refrained from calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal.

Relations with Russia dominated Tillerson’s confirmation hearing as senators pressed him on whether he agreed with sanctions imposed on Russia for cyber attacks during the US presidential campaign and for its 2014 annexation of Crimea.

"I would leave things in the status quo so we are able to convey this can go either way,” Tillerson said, though he said at other points during the hearing that US sanctions disrupted American business overseas.


He also faced questions on climate change, China’s response to North Korean missile tests and whether he would be able to make unbiased decisions after a long career at Exxon Mobil Corp, the world’s largest publicly traded oil producer. Most recently, he was chief executive at the company for a decade and developed close business ties with Russia.

Bob Corker, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said he expects the Republican-controlled Senate will easily confirm Tillerson. Nevertheless, the hearing was interrupted sporadically by protests and Tillerson faced sometimes sharp questions.

Tillerson’s answers on Russian sanctions could reassure both Republicans and Democrats who are concerned that Trump, who takes office on Jan 20, will act on his stated aim to improve ties with Russia by revoking all, or some, of the sanctions against Moscow.

Tillerson, 64, said it was a “fair assumption” that Putin was aware of Russian efforts to interfere in the US election.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio pushed him hard on whether he believed Putin was a war criminal, specifically referring to Russia’s military actions in support of the Syrian government in the Syrian civil war.

“I would not use that term,” Tillerson said.

Tillerson was also grilled on his views about climate change. “The risk of climate change does exist and the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken,” he said, but he dodged a direct question about whether he believed that human activity was a cause of climate changes.

Tillerson did not answer yes or no, but said, “The increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our abilities to predict that effect are very limited.” 


On Wednesday, Corker said Tillerson’s background as a business executive made him an “inspired choice” for the job. Corker emphasised that Tillerson had not met Trump until recently and would not be able to speak for the President-elect during the hearing.

Tillerson’s hearing came at a time of fraught ties with Russia. US intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia was behind the hacks of political figures in an effort to help the Republican Trump defeat Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the Nov 8 election. Moscow has denied the allegations.

In another revelation, also denied by Moscow, two US officials said on Tuesday evening that classified documents that the heads of four US intelligence agencies presented last week to Trump included claims that Russian intelligence operatives have compromising information about him. Trump dismissed the reports, first made by CNN, as “fake news.” Tillerson opposed US sanctions against Russia in 2014 over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine because he said he thought they would be ineffective.

On Wednesday, he said he never personally lobbied against sanctions and emphasized that he was not aware of Exxon Mobil directly doing so.

However, later during the hearing Tillerson acknowledged expressing his view that sanctions on Russia over Crimea would be ineffective, and said he had personally spoken to US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew regarding gaps between US and European sanctions on Russia.

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy vigorously challenged Tillerson’s statement that he did not lobby against the sanctions, saying that calling a US senator to express concerns over the measures “likely constitutes lobbying.” 

Exxon aggressively lobbied Congress on Iran sanctions in 2010, meeting numerous time with legislators, according to regulatory filings. The oil giant’s lobbyists discussed not only US sanctions on the Middle Eastern country, but also energy investments, trade and energy security there, according to the filings.

It is not immediately clear how much was spent on those lobbying efforts, as specific dollar amounts are not broken down in filings. In the first quarter of 2010, for example, the company spent US$4.1 million to lobby Congress on myriad issues, including not only Iran, but also chemical, environmental and credit card-related issues.

On Tuesday, 10 senators – five of whom sit on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that is vetting Tillerson - introduced legislation to impose even tougher sanctions on Moscow, and promised to grill Tillerson about whether he would back them.

The panel’s top Democrat, Senator Ben Cardin, said he regretted that remarks Tillerson submitted ahead of the hearing did not mention the “direct, confirmed cyberattack by Russia on America,” although they were critical of US leadership. 

“It is frankly not too great a distance from Exxon’s business partnerships to Putin’s Kremlin-controlled slush funds essential for his ‘disinformation’ campaigns around the world,” Cardin, a co-sponsor of the sanctions Bill, said in prepared remarks.