Lawmakers on Wednesday were deeply divided over whether President-elect Trump's pick for Secretary of State, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson would be right for the job, with many senators raising concerns about his overly cozy ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"There is so much info out there. It should not be hard to say that Vladimir Putin is a war criminal. I find it discouraging that you are not able to say that," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., at Tillerson's confirmation hearing, referring to concerns about Russia's involvement in the battle over Syria's largest city, Aleppo.
In addition to Rubio, a former Republican primary candidate, a number lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, interrupted periodically by protesters, raised concerns that Tillerson has an overly cozy relationship with Putin and Moscow-controlled oil giant Rosneft.
In 2013, Tillerson was awarded the "Order of Friendship" award by the Kremlin, a top honor for civilians. Tillerson had previously said that he has had a close relationship with Putin since 1999.
However, at his confirmation hearing, Tillerson provided a mixed view of how he expects to see U.S.-Russian relations if he becomes Secretary of State. He suggested that Russia "poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests."
Tillerson indicated that he supports NATO and acknowledged that Russia has invaded Ukraine and supported Syrian forces that "brutally violate the laws of war." However, in response to concerns raised by lawmakers that Putin is a war criminal, Tillerson said that he would be able to make that judgment only after receiving classified briefings suggesting as much.
However, Tillerson also offered up a more collaborative view of how he envisions U.S.-Russian relations if he is confirmed for the Secretary of State position, asserting that the U.S. needs "an open and frank dialogue" with Russia about its ambitions. "When cooperation with Russia is based on common interests is possible, such as reducing the global threat of terrorism, we ought to explore those options," he said.
In addition, Tillerson said he believes Russia wants a more extensive role in the world order. "Does Russia want to be an adversary of the U.S. or does Russia want a different relationship?" he asked. "We do not hold the same values. There is scope to define a different relationship that can bring down the temperature around the conflicts we have today."
Lawmakers at the hearing repeatedly raised questions about whether the U.S. with Tillerson as head of the State Department would press to dismantle sanctions on Russian companies that were installed in the wake of the country's intervention in Ukraine and its seizure of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
"Exxon became the in-house lobbyist for Russia against sanctions," said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.
At the hearing, however, pressed by senators, Tillerson acknowledged that Russia does not have a legal claim to Crimea. Nevertheless, Tillerson didn't say whether he would move to remove or maintain the Russian sanctions as Secretary of State. However, he suggested sanctions could be counterproductive if they aren't set up correctly.
In addition, concerns that Tillerson would dismantle sanctions come after the U.S. intelligence community asserted that Russia and Putin intervened in the 2016 presidential election to help Donald Trump win the presidency.
Sen. Ben Cardin, Democrat from Maryland and the highest ranking Democrat on the committee, said he was disappointed that Tillerson's testimony did not mention "the directly confirmed cyber-attack by Russia in America." Pressed by Cardin, Tillerson said the assertions by the intelligence community over Russia's role in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections were "troubling."
In addition, Tillerson's testimony comes after reports released late Tuesday suggested that U.S. intelligence agencies last week provided President Obama and Trump a summary of unsubstantiated memos collected by political operatives seeking to hurt Trump's election campaign. The summary noted that Russia had gathered compromising and scandalous personal information about the President-elect for years. Trump has called the compromising dossier "fake news" and Russia has denied having any compromising information.
A number of senators praised Tillerson. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., said he valued Tillerson's private sector experience. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and former Republican primary candidate, said Tillerson brings a substantive list of qualifications, achievements and international relationships that has prepared him to be a "strong candidate" to lead the State Department. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Tillerson demonstrates an "uncanny ability that will serve him and our country well as chief diplomat."
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. and the chairman of the committee, tilted his comments slightly in favor of Tillerson, noting that "it is very very possible you are an inspired choice." He praised Tillerson's ability to run a global enterprise with 70,000 employees "around the world. "To me that is going to give our new president much greater confidence in your ability to offer advice," Corker said.
A key issue is whether Tillerson will move to eliminate sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014, in part, to allow a joint venture ExxonMobil had with Moscow-controlled energy giant Rosneft to explore and develop oil and gas in Russia, including in the country's arctic region, and one that was shut down by the sanctions.
In addition, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, ExxonMobil did business with Iran, Syria and Sudan, through a European subsidiary while Tillerson was the top executive at the energy giant and those countries were subject to U.S. sanctions as state sponsors of terrorism.
The hearing comes after Exxon Mobil on Jan. 4 reached an agreement for Tillerson's exit if he is confirmed by the Senate as Secretary of State, as expected.
Under the agreement, the value of the more than two million Exxon shares Tillerson would have received over the course of 10 years upon retirement will be transferred to an independently managed trust prohibited from investing in the Irving, Texas-based company.
According to the Wall Street Journal's calculations, his retirement package will still be worth about $180 million.
The deal imposes costs on shareholders and represents a reversal of the energy giant's long-stated policy of not accelerating equity awards. However, by divesting all interests in Exxon, Tillerson has eliminated concerns raised by observers that he would make decisions as Secretary of State, such as eliminating sanctions, which will benefit him financially.