Rex Tillerson’s supporters portray him as an exemplary, up-by-the-bootstraps Eagle Scout who went on to lead the global petroleum conglomerate Exxon Mobil and who is perfectly suited to serve as Donald Trump’s secretary of State.
But even Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are expected to hit the Texas oilman with tough questions Wednesday at the start of a two-day confirmation hearing that will explore his record, his financing and his thinking — especially about Russia.
As chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp., Tillerson championed energy development projects in Russia and developed such close personal ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin that he is one of the few Americans ever awarded Russia’s “Order of Friendship.”
Their relationship has raised questions about whether Tillerson would take a forceful position against an adversary that, U.S. intelligence agencies say, used hacked emails, propaganda and fake news to try to help Trump win in November and to “harm” Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s chances.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who heads the Senate committee that must confirm Tillerson’s nomination, said the oilman is within “the mainstream” of GOP foreign policy orthodoxy, which has a cautious if not hostile attitude toward Russia.
The question, Corker has acknowledged, is whether Tillerson will be able to shape and change Trump’s attitudes. The president-elect has repeatedly praised Putin and has yet to publicly accept the intelligence community’s findings on Russian interference in the U.S. election.
Democrats made clear they will also focus on Tillerson’s views on Russia.
“I just want to make sure that the team is not naive, frankly, about Russia’s capacity and Russia’s intent,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, (D-Va.), who ran for vice president on Clinton’s ticket.
Tillerson is also likely to face a barrage of questions about his finances, human rights and global warming.
He has released financial disclosure documents, but not his tax returns. The documents show a personal worth of about $400 million, primarily from Exxon Mobil stock.
According to the filings, Tillerson also owns stock in Royal Dutch Shell — a competitor of Exxon Mobil — Walmart, Sony, Walt Disney and KFC chains in China.
He has promised to divest his stock portfolio if he is confirmed as secretary of State. He also promised to put $180 million in retirement benefits from Exxon Mobil in a blind trust.
Additionally, Tillerson promised in letters to the Office of Government Ethics that he would recuse himself from any matters relating to Exxon Mobil, where he spent his entire career, if he is confirmed.
As head of Exxon Mobil, he sometimes made oil exploration and production deals that ran counter to official U.S. foreign policy.
In 2011, for example, he negotiated directly with the semi-autonomous government of the oil-rich, Kurdish section of Iraq, ignoring the Obama administration’s efforts to shore up a federal Iraqi government in Baghdad.
In his filings with the ethics office, Tillerson said he has resigned from the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s trade organization, and planned to resign from the Boy Scouts of America, where he has served as national president.
“If confirmed as secretary of state, I will not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter in which I know that I have a financial interest directly and [could be] predictably affected by the matter,” Tillerson wrote.
Outside agencies, which largely saw the Obama administration as supportive of human rights concerns, expressed alarm at Tillerson’s willingness to make oil deals with autocrats in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere.
“We simply don’t know what [Tillerson] thinks about human rights, and we need to,” said Margaret Huang, executive director of the U.S. branch of Amnesty International.
In Russia, “will he be willing to… press for reforms on very serious human rights abuses, or will he be reluctant given his long relationship” with Putin and other Kremlin officials, she asked.
Numerous lawsuits over the last decade, when Tillerson led Exxon Mobil, accused the oil giant of human rights abuses and environmental problems in projects from Latin America to Indonesia. Many of the suits remain in litigation.
Tillerson met with Corker and other senators last week, and some Democrats were encouraged by what they said was his acknowledgement of science that says man-made carbon emissions are leading to climate change.
Trump has dismissed global warming as a hoax, and has indicated he will not support the Paris Agreement, an international accord that requires signatories to lower carbon emissions to specific targets over time.
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