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Senate Confirms Tillerson As Secretary Of State In Contentious Vote

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate confirmed Rex Tillerson as President Donald Trump’s secretary of state on Wednesday, filling a key spot on the Republican’s national security team despite concerns about the former Exxon Mobil Corp chief executive officer’s ties to Russia.

In the vote, 56 senators backed Tillerson, and 43 voted no. The tally was largely along party lines, with every Republican favoring Tillerson, along with four members of the Democratic caucus, Senators Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin, and Mark Warner as well as Angus King, an independent.

Democratic Senator Chris Coons did not vote.

Senate Democrats had tried, but failed, to delay the vote because of Trump’s executive order banning immigration from seven mostly Muslim countries and temporarily halting the entry of refugees. They said they wanted to ask Tillerson more questions about the issue after Trump signed the order on Friday.

Senators had also expressed concerns over Tillerson’s ties to Russia after the executive spent years there working for the oil company. Some faulted him for failing to promise to recuse himself from matters related to Exxon Mobil businesses for his entire term as secretary of state rather than only the one year required by law.

Republicans said they thought Tillerson would be a strong leaders as the country’s top diplomat. They also said it was important to fill key slots on Trump’s national security team quickly.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Alden Bentley and Jeffrey Benkoe)

IMAGE: Rex Tillerson, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil, testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing to become U.S. Secretary of State on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By A Narrow Margin, Senate Panel Clears Tillerson’s Path To Be Secretary Of State

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of state, former Exxon Mobil Corp Chairman Rex Tillerson, narrowly won approval from a Senate committee on Monday, but is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 11-10 to approve Tillerson, with every Republican backing the former oil executive and every Democrat opposing him.

His approval by the panel, a victory for Trump, had been in doubt until earlier on Monday, when Senator Marco Rubio, a committee member who had been Tillerson’s most vocal Republican critic, said he would back the nominee.

Tillerson’s confirmation by the 100-member Senate, where Republicans hold 52 seats, is not expected before next week. Democrats want more time to debate and the chamber may not be in session all this week.

Rubio’s backing had been in doubt after his tough questioning during Tillerson’s confirmation hearing, focusing on issues including concerns about Tillerson’s support for human rights. Rubio ultimately decided he would approve the nominee in deference to Trump, as well as to fill a critical top job.

Democrats said they voted against Tillerson over fears he might lift sanctions on Russia, where he did business for years, questions about his views on human rights and his refusal to recuse himself from matters related to his former employer during his entire term as the top U.S. diplomat.

Tillerson pledged to recuse himself only for the year required by law.

Amid Democratic anger over allegations that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, Tillerson also raised committee hackles by saying he did not know Exxon Mobil lobbied against sanctions on Russia while he was running the company.

Senator Ben Cardin, the committee’s top Democrat, said Tillerson’s “business orientation” and responses at his hearing “could compromise his ability as secretary of state to forcefully promote the values and ideals that have defined our country and our leading role in the world for more than 200 years.”

The Senate confirmed only two of Trump’s Cabinet nominees on Friday, his Inauguration Day, a relatively low number among recent presidencies.

Democrats have been unable to block any of his choices because they changed Senate rules in 2013 to allow nominees to be confirmed with just a majority, not 60 votes. Instead, they have used Senate rules to slow the confirmation of nominees they say hold extreme views, are unqualified or have not completed ethics disclosures.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Peter Cooney)

IMAGE: Rex Tillerson, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil, smiles during his testimony before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be U.S. secretary of state in Washington, U.S. January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Tillerson Says He Supports Keeping Russia Sanctions — For Now

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said on Wednesday he favored maintaining current U.S. sanctions against Russia for now and that NATO allies were right to be alarmed by Moscow’s growing aggression.

But Tillerson’s support for a more assertive policy toward Russia than Trump has espoused was tempered by his refusal to commit to support maintaining President Barack Obama’s executive order authorizing additional sanctions against Moscow because of its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Tillerson, oil company Exxon Mobil’s former chairman and chief executive who had extensive business dealings in Russia, refused to call President Vladimir Putin a war criminal and kept the door open to a possible changes in U.S. sanctions policy against Russia, saying he had not seen classified information on Russian meddling.

“I would leave things in the status quo so we are able to convey this can go either way,” Tillerson said during a Senate confirmation hearing interrupted sporadically by protesters opposed to his nomination.

He later said, “I would recommend maintaining the status quo until we are able to engage with Russia and understand better what their intentions are.”

Tillerson said at other points during the hearing that U.S. sanctions disrupted American business overseas.

Some of Tillerson’s answers may reassure skeptical Republicans and Democrats concerned that Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, will act on his stated aim to improve ties with Russia by revoking all, or some, sanctions against Moscow.

Tillerson said it was a “fair assumption” Putin was aware of Russian efforts to interfere in the U.S. election.

On another contentious matter, Tillerson said he would recommend a “full review” of the nuclear deal with Iran reached with the United States and other world powers, but he did not call for an outright rejection of the 2015 accord in which Tehran agreed to curtail its nuclear program in exchange for relief from crippling economic sanctions.

Trump has made contradictory statements about the nuclear deal and at one point threatened to dismantle it.

Tillerson also faced questions on climate change, China’s response to North Korean missile tests and whether he would be able to make unbiased decisions after a long career at Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest publicly traded oil producer.

Bob Corker, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said he expects the Republican-controlled Senate will easily confirm Tillerson, 64.

TOUGH QUESTIONS FROM RUBIO

Republican Senator Marco Rubio pushed him hard on whether he believed Putin was a war criminal, specifically referring to Russia’s military actions in support of Syria’s government in the lengthy Syrian civil war.

“I would not use that term,” Tillerson said.

“Those are very, very serious charges to make and I would want to have much more information before reaching a conclusion,” Tillerson added.

Rubio, who ran unsuccessfully against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, shot back, “There’s so much information out there. It should not be hard to say that Vladimir Putin’s military has conducted war crimes in Aleppo. I find it discouraging, your inability to cite that which I think is globally accepted.”

Tillerson was also grilled on his views about climate change.

“The risk of climate change does exist and the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken,” he said, but he dodged a direct question about whether he believed that human activity was a cause of climate change.

Tillerson did not answer yes or no, but said, “The increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our abilities to predict that effect are very limited.”

His hearing came at a time of fraught ties with Russia. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia was behind the hacks of American political figures in an effort to help the Republican Trump defeat Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the Nov. 8 election. Moscow has denied the allegations.

In another revelation, also denied by Moscow, two U.S. officials said on Tuesday classified documents that the heads of four U.S. intelligence agencies presented last week to Trump included claims that Russian intelligence operatives have compromising information about him. Trump dismissed the reports, first made by CNN, as “fake news.”

Tillerson opposed U.S. sanctions against Russia in 2014 over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine because he said he thought they would be ineffective.

On Wednesday, he said he never personally lobbied against sanctions and emphasized that he was not aware of Exxon Mobil directly doing so.

However, later Tillerson acknowledged expressing his view that sanctions on Russia over Crimea would be ineffective, and said he had personally spoken to U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew regarding gaps between American and European sanctions on Russia.

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy vigorously challenged Tillerson’s statement that he did not lobby against the sanctions, saying that calling a U.S. senator to express concerns over the measures “likely constitutes lobbying.”

Exxon aggressively lobbied Congress on Iran sanctions in 2010, meeting numerous time with legislators, according to regulatory filings. The oil giant’s lobbyists discussed not only U.S. sanctions on the Middle Eastern country, but also energy investments, trade and energy security there, according to the filings.

It is not immediately clear how much was spent on those lobbying efforts, as specific dollar amounts are not broken down in filings. In the first quarter of 2010, for example, the company spent $4.1 million to lobby Congress on myriad issues, including not only Iran, but also chemical, environmental and credit card-related issues.

In 2014 and 2015, Exxon lobbied Congress regarding sanctions against Russia following the annexation of Crimea. The lobbying directly related to energy matters, according to regulatory filings, which did not elucidate on which specific energy topics. Exxon has a large business in Russia and has said it would like to expand further there.

(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Washington and Ernest Scheyder in Houston; Writing by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Frances Kerry and Will Dunham)

IMAGE: Rex Tillerson, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil, testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing to become U.S. Secretary of State on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Trump Nominates Pro-Russian Oil Tycoon For Secretary Of State

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President-elect Donald Trump announced Exxon Mobil Corp’s Rex Tillerson as his choice for secretary of state on Tuesday, praising the business leader as a successful international dealmaker who has led a global operation.

Tillerson’s experience in diplomacy stems from making deals with foreign countries for the world’s largest energy company, although questions have been raised about the oil executive’s relations with Russia.

“He will be a forceful and clear-eyed advocate for America’s vital national interests, and help reverse years of misguided foreign policies and actions that have weakened America’s security and standing in the world,” Trump said in a statement.

Tillerson said he shared Trump’s “vision for restoring the credibility of the United States’ foreign relations and advancing our country’s national security.”

Trump picked Tillerson, 64, after the Texan was backed by several Republican establishment figures including former Secretary of State James Baker, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the transition official said.

Their support is seen as key to helping Tillerson get past a possibly contentious Senate confirmation battle likely to focus on his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In 2013, Putin bestowed a Russian state honor, the Order of Friendship, on Tillerson, citing his work “strengthening cooperation in the energy sector”.

Trump judged in making the pick that Tillerson could adequately address questions about his relations with Russia, an official said.

Lawmakers from both major parties have raised questions about Tillerson and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who has been mentioned as a possible No. 2 State Department official and who has voiced hawkish views on Iraq and Iran.

Separately, a source close to the transition said Trump had chosen former Texas Governor Rick Perry as his nominee for energy secretary, with an announcement expected soon. Perry met Trump on Monday at Trump Tower in New York.

Republicans and Democrats said Tillerson, who is president of Exxon Mobil Corp, would be asked about his contacts with Russia, having met Putin several times. He won fresh praise from Moscow on Monday.

Senator John McCain, a leading foreign policy voice and the 2008 Republican candidate for president, told Reuters in an interview: “I have concerns. It’s very well known that he has a very close relationship with Vladimir Putin.”

There has been controversy over the role alleged Russian cyber hacking may have had on the outcome of the Nov. 8 presidential election, in which Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton.

BUSINESS INTERESTS

While busily filling out his Cabinet, Trump is seeking to answer questions about how he will separate himself from his far-flung business empire before taking over the presidency on Jan. 20.

He had planned a news conference on Thursday to lay out the details but delayed it until Tuesday due to what aides said was the crush of picking people to serve in his administration.

In a series of late-night tweets on Monday, Trump said he would be leaving his business before Jan. 20 so he can focus full-time on the presidency and that he would leave his two sons, Donald Trump Jr and Eric Trump, to manage it.

He did not mention his daughter, Ivanka, who has been a central player in Trump’s business affairs and who is said to be considering a move to Washington to help her father.

“No new deals will be done during my term(s) in office,” Trump said.

He said he would hold a press conference “in the near future to discuss the business, Cabinet picks and all other topics of interest. Busy times!”

Trump chose Tillerson over 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who had famously criticized Trump during the party’s fight for a nominee this year. Trump called Romney to tell him he had decided to choose someone else for the job.

“It was an honor to have been considered for secretary of state of our great country,” Romney said in a Facebook posting on Monday night.

“My discussions with President-elect Trump have been both enjoyable and enlightening. I have very high hopes that the new administration will lead the nation to greater strength, prosperity and peace.”

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

IMAGE: ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, Texas April 21, 2015.  REUTERS/Daniel Kramer