Continue reading Spotlight on Exxon's Rex Tillerson, Trump's ties with Russia, at secretary of state hearing

WASHINGTON — Rex Tillerson, the longtime Exxon Mobil chief tapped for secretary of state, faces the Senate on Wednesday as lawmakers seek clarity and reassurance on President-elect Donald Trump’s foreign policies.

The confirmation hearing will put a spotlight on Exxon’s dealings with Russia and its strongman president, Vladimir Putin. Democrats are wary of Tillerson’s opposition to sanctions against Russia, where journalists and opposition politicians have been assassinated or jailed.

In striking billion dollar deals for exploration, Tillerson has worked more closely with Putin than perhaps any other U.S. executive or official. Admirers call that a plus.

But Trump’s views toward Russia have been remarkable, and that has complicated the picture for Tillerson.

Senators in both parties have expressed dismay at Trump’s refusal to embrace the consensus of U.S. intelligence agencies — that Russia tried to help him win the presidency by hacking and exposing Democratic Party emails. The leaks embarrassed and rattled the Clinton campaign, and threw Democrats into turmoil.

“Every American should be alarmed by Russia’s brazen attack on our democracy,” Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday.

Sens. John Cornyn, the deputy majority leader, and Ted Cruz signed up to introduce their fellow Texan at the hearing. Cornyn quickly and enthusiastically endorsed the nomination. Cruz remained noncommittal even through Tuesday night, when an aide confirmed that he’ll help with the introduction, after  the Trump team released a written version of Tillerson’s remarks in which he thanks both senators for their support. 

In the remarks, Tillerson embraces policies that Trump calls “America First,” and which his nominee described as a “rededication to American security, liberty, and prosperity.” But he makes no mention of Russia’s cyberattacks aimed, in the judgment of U.S. intelligence agencies, at tilting the presidential election for Trump — an omission that earned a rebuke from the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland.

Russia’s disinformation campaign was funded at least indirectly by revenues from deals in which Exxon was involved, he asserted, along with “Putin has used to crush democracy and dissent at home and to sow divisions abroad.”

Trump’s public admiration for Putin has caused consternation across the political spectrum – concerns heightened Tuesday, on the eve of Tillerson’s hearing, after reports that U.S. intelligence chiefs briefed President Barack Obama and Trump last week on allegations that Russian spies have “compromising personal and financial information” about Trump. (More here.)

The uproar provided an unexpected subtext to the Tillerson hearing.

Russia isn’t the only country where Exxon Mobil’s dealings on Tillerson’s watch provide fodder for the hearing.

In Iraq, Exxon ignored the George W. Bush State Department, which was strongly discouraging deals with the Kurds. American officials feared a slide toward civil war and felt that side deals with the Kurds, with the central government in Baghdad still wrestling with a national law governing oil revenues, would worsen ethnic tensions.

Even so, the former president has vouched for his fellow Texan, putting in a good word with Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker.

The deal with the Kurds highlighted Tillerson’s willingness to make a risky bet that conflicted with U.S. policy. Critics want assurances that as secretary of state, he’ll set aside corporate imperatives.

“Exxon isn’t unique,” said Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “Any business leader is going to have to consider their bottom line.”

But she said, “it was very clear that the decision of Tillerson and Exxon to ignore the requests and guidance from the Bush administration on the purchase of oil from the Kurdish government in northern Iraq absolutely had an impact on the ongoing conflict in the country and escalation of sectarian tensions.”

Another report this week revealed that an Exxon subsidiary conducted business in the early 2000s with Iran, Syria and Sudan — countries were under U.S. sanctions as state sponsors of terrorism. Exxon defended the deals as legal, noting that the subsidiary was based in Europe and the deals involved no American employees.

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