Tillerson faces grilling over Russia, Iran ties at Senate hearing

Rex Tillerson is Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of State. While Tillerson was at ExxonMobil, new reports show the company made business deals with countries who were under U.S. sanctions at the time. USA TODAY NETWORK

WASHINGTON — Former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson Wednesday faced members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations who promised to grill him over his ties to Russia and Iran at a confirmation hearing to be Donald Trump’s secretary of State.

Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the committee, was tough on Tillerson, reminding the nominee that after the U.S. intelligence community assessed that Russia sought to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, Tillerson blamed only a failure of U.S. leadership for Russia’s resurgence.

Cardin promised to ask Tillerson if he would support maintaining sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine and how he would advise Trump on Syria, where Russia has helped Syrian President Bashar Assad conduct a brutal war against an uprising that includes U.S.-supported freedom fighters.

Several Republican senators — John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida — have joined Democrats in expressing concern about Tillerson’s close business relations with Russia. Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will likely question Tillerson about his dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., in his opening statement told Tillerson his nomination makes sense for a president-elect who looks at the world with the eyes of a businessman.

“You may in fact be an inspired choice,” Corker said to Tillerson in his opening statement. As a former chief of one of the world’s largest corporations with operations in dozens of countries, Corker said Tillerson knows how “to prioritize, restore credibility, to restore relationships based on trust which corporations like yours have to do.”

“And lastly you are the person in charge to provide advice to the president-elect on foreign policy,” Corker said. “What the people here today are going to want to know is how are you going to advise.”

In his prepared remarks, Tillerson acknowledged that “our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia.”

That Russian resurgence occurred “in the absence of American leadership” in recent years, he said.

“We are the only global superpower with the means and the moral compass capable of shaping the world for good,” he said.

The hearing comes a day after CNN broke news that U.S. intelligence chiefs on Friday briefed Trump and President Obama on an unverified report that included salacious and unsubstantiated allegations that Russian operatives had obtained potentially compromising personal and financial information about the president-elect.

The report was produced by a former Western spy who’d been hired to conduct opposition research on Trump for a Republican candidate in the primary campaign, and later worked for the campaign of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, according to CNN and other media who obtained a copy. The FBI decided to brief Trump on its contents after verifying that the person who produced it had an extensive network of sources in Russia, CNN reported.

Trump called the report “fake news” and, in a tweet, cited a Russian denial that it has any information on him or Clinton.

Even without the salacious report, which has yet to be fully investigated, Senators would have had lots to talk to Tillerson about regarding his relationship with Russian leaders. In 2013, the oil executive received Russia’s Order of Friendship award, which is given to foreign nationals who the Russian government believes have worked to better relations. Tillerson received the honor after inking a deal with a Russian oil company. He has also been critical of U.S. economic sanctions against Russia.

ExxonMobil did business with Iran, Syria and Sudan through a European subsidiary while Tillerson was a top executive of the oil firm, and those countries were under U.S. sanctions as state sponsors of terrorism, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings. That business connection was legal but could still surface during questioning at the confirmation hearing.

Tillerson, 64, started working for Exxon in 1975 until he resigned from the company to join Trump’s Cabinet. Tillerson started as a production engineer and moved up the ranks before becoming chairman and CEO in 2006. His experience negotiating with foreign governments — including governments hostile to the United States — was one of the reasons the president-elect selected him.

“The thing I like best about Rex Tillerson is that he has vast experience at dealing successfully with all types of foreign governments,” Trump tweeted after announcing Tillerson’s appointment in December.

Tillerson was president of the Boy Scouts of America for two years beginning in 2012. He also was a longtime board member and an Eagle Scout. He was involved in Scout leadership when the organization made the decision to allow openly gay members.

Last year, Tillerson was investigated by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman over whether ExxonMobil had misled investors and regulators about climate change despite having research proving the contrary.

Tillerson called the charges “pretty unfounded,” and ExxonMobil sued to stop the subpoena demanding decades of the company’s records. The New York State Supreme Court has ruled that the company must turn over the documents.

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Contributing: Eliza Collins

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