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Rex Tillerson set for tough confirmation hearings for secretary of state

Senators will grill Rex Tillerson about the longtime oil executive’s business deals in difficult parts of the world and friendships with autocratic leaders on Wednesday.

By Ed O'Keefe and Anne Gearan, The Washington Post
ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston on April 21, 2015.

Senators will grill Rex Tillerson about the longtime oil executive’s business deals in difficult parts of the world and friendships with autocratic leaders during the first of two planned days of confirmation hearings to become secretary of state.

Tillerson is expected to face tough opposition from Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and may have an uphill path to confirmation because of the likely opposition of one or more Republicans.

The 64-year-old Texan, recommended to President-elect Donald Trump as a dark horse candidate but with no government experience, will have his first chance to address concerns that the company he headed, ExxonMobil, put profits ahead of human rights, environmental and policy concerns, and that he has cozy relations with authoritarian leaders.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, promised that at least the first day of hearings will last most of Wednesday.

“It’s going to be long,” he warned, in part because Democrats have requested ample time to ask Tillerson questions and to review his record in public.

Tillerson comes to the committee well-prepared, Corker said, because he has met with every senator who is a member of the panel.

“He’s got a pretty good sense of the kinds of questions to expect. He’s aware that the president-elect’s comments towards Russia have people wondering where he himself is going to be. I think he’s good on that issue, or at least he was in my office,” Corker said. Late last week, Corker predicted that Tillerson would be overwhelmingly confirmed.

Among Republican committee members, only Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) has expressed reservations about Tillerson on grounds he may be too close to Russia. Democrats are expected to make the increasingly troubled U.S. relationship with Moscow and the U.S. intelligence finding of Russian interference in the November election a dominant theme in questions. They also plan queries surrounding the oil giant’s record addressing climate change.

Rubio did not tip his hand Tuesday when asked about the hearing, saying only that he would have several questions prepared for what he hopes will be a “serious hearing.”

In a copy of his prepared opening remarks released by the transition team late Tuesday, Tillerson did not mention concerns about his business history or Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, with whom he is said to have a long-standing relationship. A transition statement said that Tillerson’s “relationships in some countries extend back multiple administrations and regimes” and that “in some cases he has more institutional knowledge than the current government.”

The statement also said that Tillerson “agrees with President-elect Trump that we should maintain good relationships with any countries and leaders who will work with the United States to defeat radical Islamic terrorism.” Trump has called for cooperation with Russia on counterterrorism and other aims.

It is not clear that any Democrats on the committee will vote for the nominee. Both Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) have indicated reluctance to vote for Tillerson. That could endanger the nomination in the Senate, which Republicans hold with 52 seats.

McCain said Tuesday that he had no plans to sit and watch the proceedings but that he intended to send Tillerson written questions regarding Russia “and other matters.”

Despite potential GOP objections, Tillerson appears likely to attract some Democratic support if his nomination is approved by the committee.

“The Democrats, I think, have gotten together and developed a theme that I think you’ll see play out over and over in questions,” Corker said. “My job is to have a fulsome hearing that is fair and thorough, and that at the end of it, people have a really good sense of the type of advice that he’s going to be giving President-elect Trump relative to foreign policy.”

Marquee event

Tillerson is a more familiar figure on Capitol Hill than he was to many Americans before becoming Trump’s choice to lead the State Department. The recently retired head of the country’s largest oil company was called to testify over oil prices and other issues.

Tillerson’s hearing is set to be the marquee event Wednesday, as senators shifted around a few other hearings on what promises to be one of the busiest days on the Senate calendar in recent years. Amid three confirmation hearings, senators will be holding up-or-down votes on amendments to legislation that begins the process of undoing the Affordable Care Act — a politically contentious move that will require senators to vote carefully on a host of controversial proposals.

Tillerson is poised to spend much of the day answering questions about his leadership of ExxonMobil, the oil industry giant where he spent his entire career and amassed a personal fortune of approximately $400 million, and the deals and relationships he forged in Russia and the Middle East.

Tillerson accepted an Order of Friendship award given personally by Putin in 2013, and he has met with the Russian leader as well as senior government officials numerous times. In 2011 he oversaw a joint venture with the mostly state-owned oil company Rosneft to produce oil in the Arctic.

“Tillerson has really good relations with the two most important people in Russia — Putin and [Rosneft chief executive Igor] Sechin,” said Russian political analyst Andranik Migranyan, an informal adviser to the Kremlin.

In his prepared remarks, Tillerson repeatedly referred to the need for American leadership, saying that it “must not only be renewed, it must be asserted. . . . If we do not lead, we risk plunging the world deeper into confusion and danger.”

“But we’ve stumbled,” the remarks said. “In recent decades, we have cast American leadership into doubt.”

In apparent reference to commitments by NATO members to increase their defense spending, he said that “we cannot look the other way at allies who do not meet their obligations.”

“We cannot afford to ignore violations of international accords, as we have done with Iran,” he said. “We cannot continue to accept empty promises like the ones China has made to pressure North Korea to reform.”

Tillerson, according to the remarks, will criticize China for violating “international norms” in the South China Sea, contravening global economic agreements, stealing U.S. intellectual property and for its aggression “in the digital realm.”

The remarks made no mention of the intelligence community’s charges of Russian election interference, and appeared to blame the Obama administration for failing to understand Moscow’s objectives.

“Russia today poses a danger,” the transcript said, “but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests.” Noting that it has “invaded Ukraine, including the taking of Crimea, and supported Syrian forces that brutally violate the laws of war,” it Tillerson said that “our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia.”

“But it was in the absence of American leadership that this door was left open and unintended signals were sent,” he stated. “We backtracked on commitments we made to allies. We sent weak or mixed signals with ‘red lines’ that turned into green lights. We did not recognize that Russia does not think like we do.”

Lingering questions

Several environmental, human rights and other groups planned demonstrations outside the hearing room or challenged Tillerson to explain his record.

“As head of ExxonMobil, Tillerson has spent years cultivating relationships with countries whose governments have engaged in human rights abuses,” said Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “We simply don’t know whether Rex Tillerson agrees with these governments’ disregard for human rights, and we need to.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who was the Democratic vice-presidential candidate last year, said he is preparing to quiz Tillerson about his relationship with Russian officials and news reports that showed ExxonMobil actively worked to discredit concerns about climate change despite the company’s knowledge of its adverse affects. Kaine said he raised those concerns during a recent private meeting with Tillerson.

“I didn’t get answers that made me think, ‘Okay, I don’t need to worry about them.’ I’m still concerned,” Kaine said.

The recently retired oil executive almost certainly will be asked about his central role overseeing a secretive 2011 deal to explore and extract oil in northern Iraq. The arrangement reached with the semiautonomous Kurdish government contradicted the U.S. goal of a federal oil agreement that would share wealth across the country’s Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni populations.

U.S. diplomats had asked Exxon and other firms to hold off on unilateral deals to maximize U.S. leverage as the Iraqi parliament haggled over a federal oil law and ethnic tensions worsened.

Exxon’s partnership with the Kurds took Washington by surprise.

“When Exxon has sought our advice about this, we asked them to wait for national legislation,” then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at the time. “We told them we thought that was the best course of action.”

Corker argued that Tillerson’s corporate background can be seen as good preparation for the job of the United States’ chief diplomat — a role that requires a wide knowledge of the world, geopolitics and history.

“There’s people who view Exxon on the other side of the aisle as the devil incarnate. And there are people that understand that when you run a 70,000-person corporation that’s operated all around the world, it gives you some insights that in fairness most secretaries of state don’t have, right?” Corker said. “I think it’ll cut both ways.”

Corker noted that Tillerson has pledged to sell all of his stock in ExxonMobil.

Steven Mufson and Missy Ryan contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Exxon Mobil Corp. has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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