Senators balk at Tillerson’s ties to Russia

Senators signaled that President-elect Donald Trump’s leading choice for secretary of state, Exxon Mobil chief Rex Tillerson, could have trouble winning confirmation because of his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState,” Florida Republican Marco Rubio, who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee that would consider Tillerson’s nomination, said Sunday in a Twitter post signed with his initials.

Criticism from Republicans such as Rubio and Arizona Sen. John McCain as well as key Democrats suggest that nominating the Exxon chairman and chief executive officer could become a messy distraction for the new president. It also would become a proxy fight over Trump’s position that Putin is an effective leader with whom he can reach agreements, a stance widely unpopular among lawmakers in both parties.

In what may be a message that he’s still evaluating reaction to the choice, Trump said Sunday on Twitter: “Whether I choose him or not for ‘State’ – Rex Tillerson, the Chairman & CEO of Exxon Mobil, is a world class player and dealmaker. Stay tuned!”

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Relations between the U.S. and Russia have ebbed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and intervention in Syria’s civil war, and Putin has expressed hope that Trump will be a more sympathetic ear in the White House than President Barack Obama, whose relationship with the Russian leader is frosty.

“I don’t know what Mr. Tillerson’s relationship with Vladimir Putin was, but I’ll tell you it is a matter of concern to me,” McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Saturday on Fox News. “You want to give the president of the United States the benefit of the doubt because the people have spoken. But Vladimir Putin is a thug, a bully and a murderer, and anybody else who describes him as anything else is lying.”

Tillerson’s ties to Putin date to 1999, when the pair met on Sakhalin Island in Russia’s Far East. He was awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship, a high civilian honor given to distinguished foreign nationals. As recently as 2015 he visited with officials in Putin’s inner circle. That connection could make him a useful bridge between the Russian leader and Trump in his efforts to improve U.S. relations with Moscow.

But Stephen Sestanovich, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union, said it would be impossible for Tillerson to be effective, given his connections to Exxon and Putin.

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“This is a shocking choice: If Tillerson has to recuse himself from Russia policy, he can’t do his job; if he doesn’t recuse himself, he creates the appearance of deep conflict of interest, even corruption,” Sestanovich, the George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an e-mail. “This is a god-awful position for a secretary of state to be in.”

Trump met with Tillerson, who must retire from Exxon when he turns 65 in March, for more than two hours on Saturday, and he is likely to offer the Exxon chief the secretary of state position, a person familiar with the matter said. Trump has also considered prominent politicians for the job, including 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tennessee.

In a sign that he’d try to provide a receptive confirmation hearing for Tillerson, Corker said in a tweet on Saturday, “If it is Rex Tillerson, he is a very impressive individual.”

But it would take only one Republican, such as Rubio, joining all of the Foreign Relations Committee’s Democrats to block a Tillerson nomination in the committee. The nomination could be taken to the Senate floor despite a rejection in the committee, but that would be an unprecedented move for a Cabinet post.

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Tensions over Trump’s views on Russia have been exacerbated by the president-elect’s continuing rejection of findings by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia was behind the hacking during the presidential campaign that led to extensive leaks of Democrats’ e-mails.

While the initial finding was that Russia’s goal was to undermine confidence in the U.S. political process, The Washington Post reported Friday that the CIA had told senators in classified briefings that Putin’s government had gone further — actively seeking to help Trump win election.

Trump’s transition team belittled the U.S. intelligence community in a statement on The Post’s report late Friday that also exaggerated Trump’s margin of victory.

“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” the statement read. “The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.”‘

McCain and the incoming Senate Democratic leader, Charles Schumer of New York, said Sunday in an unusual joint statement that the Senate would investigate Russia’s interference in Trump’s election.

McCain and Schumer, joined by Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina, and Jack Reed, D- Rhode Island, said, “Democrats and Republicans must work together, and across the jurisdictional lines of the Congress, to examine these recent incidents thoroughly and devise comprehensive solutions to deter and defend against further cyber-attacks.”

Under Tillerson, Exxon developed deep roots in Russia and a close relationship with Putin’s government. The country became Exxon’s single biggest exploration theater as the company amassed drilling rights across tens of millions of acres, dwarfing its holdings in the U.S., formerly its largest drilling opportunity, according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

When the Putin regime forced Royal Dutch Shell and other foreign investors to cede control of a massive gas export project on Sakhalin Island in 2007, Exxon’s holdings in the same region remained untouched by the government.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said that Igor Sechin, chairman of the Russian company Rosneft PJSC, Exxon’s partner in the country, is among individuals targeted by U.S. sanctions put in place after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2015. In an e-mail, he questioned whether Tillerson would seek to lift those sanctions as secretary of state.

“This is the kind of question that needs to be asked during his confirmation hearings,” he said.

Tillerson is no stranger to the West Wing. He’s made at least 20 visits to the White House during Obama’s two terms, visitor logs show, including five since Obama began authorizing new sanctions in 2014 related to Russian aggression toward Ukraine.

Tillerson’s met several times with Jeffrey Zients, director of the National Economic Council. While the logs don’t record the matters discussed, they began on March 12, 2014, six days after Obama signed Executive Order 13660, authorizing sanctions including travel restrictions on people and entities deemed responsible for violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, or stealing assets of the Ukrainian people. Tillerson and Zients met two more times in 2014 and twice in early 2015.

Daniel Yergin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning energy author and analyst, applauded the potential pick of Tillerson, calling his experience and intellect “tremendous” and said he would separate himself from Exxon.

“He’ll be secretary of the United States and he’ll be divorced from the company completely,” Yergin, who’s vice chairman of consulting firm IHS Markit said in an interview. “He’s very orderly and disciplined in how he approaches decisions.”

With assistance from Joe Carroll and Jennifer Jacobs