The Senate confirmation hearing for President-elect Donald Trump’s secretary of state pick is set for Wednesday, and the former Exxon Mobil CEO might be due for a tough battle.
While Rex Tillerson is likely to be confirmed as the next secretary of state, he’ll face tough questioning from senators.
We’ve taken a look at the three major areas of concern Tillerson is likely to be grilled on during his hearing.
Tillerson’s ties to Russia go back nearly two decades. Tillerson first met Vladimir Putin in 1999, according to Bloomberg, when he first represented Exxon’s interests in Russia while it was under Boris Yeltsin’s leadership.
And he has also worked with Rosneft, a major Russian state-run corporation, since the 1990s.
Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told NPR that he expects questions about Tillerson’s ties to Russia during his conformation hearing.
“He did business with Russia. He was able to get things done there,” Cardin said. “And those relationships will be subject to questioning during the confirmation hearings.”
But Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee who is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told NPR that Tillerson’s views on Russia “are not, in any way, out of the mainstream.”
Geopolitical expert and Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer also speculated that Tillerson’s ties to Russia might not be a bad thing.
“He’s a strong executive,” Bremmer wrote last month. “He has a better relationship with Putin than anyone else Trump could have chosen, and before we dismiss that as a bad thing, we should consider the benefits of better communications with a guy that has a demonstrated ability to make all kinds of trouble for Washington.”
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And several sources familiar with Tillerson’s meetings with senators told CNN that Tillerson acknowledged the need to get tough on Russia.
“He indicated that he knew what Putin was about and that you need to deal with Russia from a position of strength,” one staffer told CNN. “He framed his relationship with Putin as one where he felt he could talk to him frankly and that he was prepared to do that.”
But other senators are more skeptical.
Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both Republicans, have publicly expressed concerns about Tillerson’s past dealings with the Kremlin.
McCain said recently that he still has concerns about Tillerson even after having a meeting with him. And Graham said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that Tillerson has “to convince me, and I think other members of the body, that he sees Russia as a disruptive force.”
Trump cozied up to Russia during his campaign for president, and some critics have expressed concern about his reluctance to admit the Kremlin’s role in hacking that was aimed at interfering in the presidential election.
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Tillerson has moved to cut his financial ties to Exxon and stepped down from his position as CEO on Jan. 1, but some have still called into question how his business dealings would shape his views if he’s confirmed as secretary of state.
Several of Exxon’s projects in Russia — worth tens of billions of dollars — have been put on hold because of sanctions the US has imposed on the country, according to The New York Times.
The US increased sanctions on Russia after the country annexed Crimea, which had been part of Ukraine.
Former Exxon board member William W. George told The Wall Street Journal that Tillerson opposed the additional sanctions at the time.
“As secretary of state, he would be called upon to negotiate with world leaders like Vladimir Putin,” Michael T. Klare, a professor at Hampshire College and the author of “The Race for What’s Left,” a book about the rush for oil in the thawing Arctic, told The Times.
“In these negotiations, one has to wonder what would influence the types of deals he is making,” he added. “Questions arise over whether his actions would be benefiting his company or the interests of the United States and its allies.”
Tillerson told senators in his meeting with them that sanctions could be a useful tool, according to CNN. But he didn’t express support for any sanctions in particular.
CNN also reported that Senate aides are reviewing Exxon’s plan to pay out Tillerson’s holdings in the company. Exxon’s plan will give him about $180 million to put into a blind trust.
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Lack of government experience
If Tillerson is confirmed, he’d be the first secretary of state with no experience in the public sector.
The media was quick to note after Trump nominated Tillerson that he lacked government experience.
CNN observed that Tillerson “will have to explain why his own lack of formal foreign policy experience is not a disqualifying feature of his resume.”
But others have pointed out that he traveled the world and negotiated with foreign heads of state during his time at Exxon.
One former Exxon employee who’s now at the Brookings Institution made the case for Tillerson as secretary of state.
“A lot of the negative/shocked reactions to Rex Tillerson as SecState seem to come from people w/limited understanding of private sector,” Suzanne Maloney wrote on Twitter last month. “Presumption that Tillerson must be a pro-Putin ideologue bc he / [Exxon] did business successfully in Putin’s Russia is simplistic & patronizing.”
She continued: “Oil folks know stuff: anyone who manages multi-billion dollar, multi-decade projects needs deep, nuanced understanding of political context. In this sense Tillerson’s business experience gives him very different lens than other execs in Trump cabinet — & very relevant for diplomacy.”