Rex Tillerson Begins Confirmation Showdown With Democrats

Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump‘s pick to be the next secretary of state, has begun testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a two-day confirmation hearing.

You can watch those hearings live here.

The multimillionaire former CEO of ExxonMobil has emerged as one of Trump’s more controversial nominees — largely because of his close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin — but until today Tillerson had yet to have the opportunity to defend himself in a public forum.

Before delivering his opening remarks, Tillerson was endorsed by three prominent witnesses, including Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, as well as former CIA chief and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

In his opening remarks, Tillerson suggested that he wants to embrace Trump’s stated interest in becoming friendlier with Russia, while remaining “clear eyed,” as he put it, about the relationship.

“[Russia] has invaded Ukraine, including the taking of Crimea, and supported Syrian forces that brutally violate the laws of war,” Tillerson said. “Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia.”

But Tillerson blames the Obama administration for allowing Russia to believe it could behave badly.

“It was in the absence of American leadership that this door was left open and unintended signals were sent,” Tillerson said. “We backtracked on commitments we made to allies. We sent weak or mixed signals with “red lines” that turned into green lights.”

Officials close to the Trump transition team have high confidence in Tillerson, 64, and say they expect he will impress his critics.

“Someone like Rex Tillerson, I think once the American people and some of the senators at the hearings get to hear him in public, they are going to be unbelievably impressed,” incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told Fox News Tuesday, later adding, “I will tell you this, Rex Tillerson is one tough guy. The same way he fought for Exxon, he will fight for this country.”

“Rex knows how to manage a global enterprise, which is crucial to running a successful State Department, and his relationships with leaders all over the world are second to none. I can think of no one more prepared, and no one more dedicated, to serve as secretary of state at this critical time in our history,” Trump said in a statement announcing his decision to pick Tillerson last month.

Tillerson developed a reputation at Exxon as a fierce negotiator capable of making multibillion dollar deals under difficult circumstances, but it’s those same deals and relationships he’s developed that have Democrats ready to ask tough questions about how he will approach the nation’s top diplomatic post.

Tillerson’s relationship with Russia dates back to the 1990s when he assumed responsibility for all of ExxonMobil’s holdings there. In 2011, the company forged a deal with Russian oil company Rosneft, which at that time was 75 percent owned by the Russian government.

Putin personally attended the signing ceremony for the deal, which gave ExxonMobil access to Arctic oil deposits. In 2013, the two companies expanded their partnership.

Putin awarded Tillerson the 2013 Order of Friendship, one of the highest Russian government honors given to foreigners.

In 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea, Exxon was forced to halt the deal because of U.S. sanctions. Although the company put out a press release saying it was “winding down” its operations after the sanctions, Tillerson reportedly called sanctions “ineffective” at a 2014 shareholders meeting.

“We do not support sanctions, generally, because we don’t find them to be effective unless they are very well implemented comprehensively, and that’s a very hard thing to do,” he said at that meeting, according to The Dallas Business Journal.

Statements like these could put Tillerson at odds with senators, including some Republicans, who have expressed concern that the former CEO’s relationship with Russia could pose a potential conflict of interest or signal this administration’s pursuit of friendlier U.S.-Russia ties.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said he expected the U.S.-Russia relationship to be at the “front and center” of his confirmation process.

“Based upon his extensive business dealings with the Putin government and his previous opposition of efforts to impose sanctions on the Russian government, there are many questions which must be answered,” Graham said in a statement.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, has echoed Graham’s concerns about Tillerson’s relationship with Putin. “Vladimir Putin is a thug, a murderer, a KGB guy who only wants to restore the Russian empire,” McCain told Fox News in December.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, who has said he also has “serious concerns” about Tillerson’s nomination, met with the nominee Monday night, but would only say afterward that he looked forward to today’s confirmation hearing.

Recently unearthed financial documents may shift some of the hearing’s focus off of Russia. The documents show that, under Tillerson’s leadership, ExxonMobil also did business with Iran, Syria and Sudan through a European subsidiary, exploiting a loophole that allowed the company to circumvent economic sanctions that prevented American businesses from dealing with these countries, which remain state sponsors of terrorism.

At a forum at the United States Institute of Peace on Tuesday, current Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been cautious in providing his opinion about Tillerson and the incoming administration, criticized the vetting process of his would-be successor for not being as rigorous as his own.

“I mean, this whole issue of the norms of how we go through a nominating process. We have a whole bunch of hearings that are taking place without any — and I’m stepping beyond my bailiwick, but it’s quite amazing to me when I think of the hoops I had to jump through with respect to paper submitted, and documentation, and tax returns, and a whole bunch of things. Suddenly, that’s gone poof, and it’s not as important,” Kerry said.

When asked how the transition with the new administration was going, Kerry said, “Well, it’s going pretty smoothly because there’s not an enormous amount of it.”

Ten days from Trump’s inauguration, Kerry said he still had not met with Tillerson, but expected to “in the near term.”

For his part, Tillerson seems eager to move beyond the foreign policy of the Obama administration. For instance, Trump’s incoming administration has said it intends to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, something Secretary Kerry has strongly warned could incite violence and damage any hope for a two-state solution.

“In recent decades, we have cast American leadership into doubt,” Tillerson said today.

“In some instances, we have withdrawn from the world. In others, we have intervened with good intentions but did not achieve the stability and global security we sought. Instead, we triggered a host of unintended consequences and created a void of uncertainty. Today, our friends still want to help us, but they don’t know how. Meanwhile, our adversaries have been emboldened to take advantage of this absence of American leadership.

“In this campaign, president-elect Trump proposed a bold new commitment to advancing American interests in our foreign policy. I hope to explain what this approach means and how I would implement that policy if confirmed as secretary of state.”

ABC News’ Elizabeth McLaughlin and Alana Abramson contributed to this report.

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