Tillerson's confirmation hearing, in which the former Exxon CEO will seek to distance himself from Putin and say that Russia "must be held accountable for its actions" adding that "Russia today poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests." begins at 9am Eastern, and can be watched below.
* * *
Anticipating questions at his upcoming confirmation hearing, in which his "close relationship" with Russia will likely be in the spotlight for most of the session, Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of State on Wednesday will tell senators that Russia "must be held accountable for its actions" and that "Russia today poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests."
“Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia,” Tillerson, 64, will say before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, according to his prepared remarks. At the same time, he faults a lack of U.S. leadership for Russia’s aggressiveness, citing “weak or mixed signals with ‘red lines’ that turned into green lights" adding "we must also be clear-eyed about our relationship with Russia."
Having been accused of being friendly with Putin during his tenure as Exxon CEO, it should not come as a surprise that his remarks are a sharp departure from comments by Trump, who has called for a friendlier relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Critics have raised questions over Tillerson's close ties to Russia since his nomination for secretary of State. He received Russia's Order of Friendship Award from President Vladimir Putin in 2013 and he opposed sanctions against the country following its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014.
As Bloomberg adds, "it’s also a stark turnaround for an oil baron who staked billions of dollars on Russia’s crude bonanza and as recently as 3 1/2 years ago was feted by Russia with its Order of Friendship. One of Tillerson’s most decisive moves as chief executive officer and chairman of Exxon was to make Russia the company’s biggest single exploration prospect globally."
Now, Tillerson faces the challenge of assuring lawmakers that he can pursue the broader interests of U.S. foreign policy after his 41-year career at Exxon, the world’s largest energy company by market value.
Tillerson's hearing comes at an awkward time, just a day after reports surfaced that intelligence officials had briefed the president-elect on a shadowy, unverifiable dossier alleging the Russian government had compromising information on him. The 35-page document, made up of a collection of memos filled with explosive claims about Trump's relationship to Russia - which may or may not have been originated on 4chan - has been circulating among journalists and officials for months.
Still, despite the recent surge in hacking-related newsflow, Tillerson will avoid the topic. In his testimony, Tillerson says Russia has acted against U.S. interests and urges an “open and frank dialogue” so that “we know how to chart our own course.” But, as Bloomberg adds, he makes no mention of U.S. intelligence findings that Russia hacked into last year’s presidential campaign, leaking documents in what the spy agencies say became an effort to help Trump win. Russia has denied responsibility for the hacking.
It’s an issue likely to come up in questioning, as are news reports that U.S. intelligence officials have informed Trump they’ve received unsubstantiated information that the Russian government had compiled potentially damaging personal and financial information on him. Trump denounced those reports on Twitter as “FAKE NEWS - A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!”
The Kremlin denied those allegations Wednesday. Asked to comment on Tillerson’s prepared statement, spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the Kremlin’s past “positive” assessments of the nominee referred to his professional qualities. “This doesn’t mean we are wearing rose-colored glasses,” Peskov said. “We understand that Mr. Tillerson will continue to be rather firm in following his line.”
While avoiding the topic of hacking, Tillerson does touch upon a more sensitive, to Russia issue, namely sanctions: in a nod to senators from both parties who are seeking tighter restrictions on Russia after the hacking, Tillerson does say the U.S. should use “economic aid and economic sanctions as instruments of foreign policy when appropriate.” Exxon has been hurt by sanctions against Russia that stalled its drilling plans there.
Tillerson says he is trying to explain what he calls Trump’s “bold new commitment” to advancing U.S. priorities abroad. At the same time, the speech charts a foreign policy vision that differs with Trump’s in important ways. Tillerson says the world risks plunging “deeper into confusion and danger” without American leadership, while Trump has cast the U.S. as overextended and in need of an “America First” policy.
In an implicit criticism of President Barack Obama’s policies, Tillerson paints a portrait of a U.S. government that has abrogated its leadership position in the world and no longer lives up to its commitments. Citing his time in the Boy Scouts -- he was an Eagle Scout and went on to lead the organization -- he says the U.S. must abide by the phrase the Boy Scouts cherish: “On my honor.”
Away from Russia-related topics, one sensitive issue Tillerson mentions is “radical Islam" - he says defeating Islamic State terrorists must be “our foremost priority in the Middle East.” He calls out North Korea and Iran, which he says has been allowed to get away with violations of the agreement that limited its nuclear program.
Tillerson also faults China for failing to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program and for stealing U.S. intellectual property.
In laying out a modest olive branch to China, Tillerson will say that “we need to see the positive dimensions in our relationship with China as well,” he will say. “The economic well-being of our two nations is deeply intertwined. China has been a valuable ally in curtailing elements of radical Islam. We should not let disagreements over other issues exclude areas for productive partnership.”
According to Bloomberg, those remarks will please leaders in Beijing, who have been unnerved by a litany of tweets in which Trump has questioned 40 years of protocol on Taiwan while saying that China dumps cheap goods on the U.S. market and continues to manipulate its currency.