Russia poses a danger to US, says Trump nominee Tillerson

Secretary of state nominee criticises ‘weak or mixed signals’ of Obama administration

During a Senate hearing over his nomination to be Donald Trump's Secretary of State, Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson came out strongly critical of Russia. Video: Reuters

Russia poses a danger to the US and must be held accountable for its actions, Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of state and the former CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp, told senators at his confirmation hearing.

“Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia,” Mr Tillerson (64) said before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday. At the same time, he faulted a lack of US leadership for Russia’s aggressiveness, citing “weak or mixed signals with ‘red lines’ that turned into green lights”.

Mr Tillerson was pressed early by Ben Cardin of Maryland, the committee's top Democrat, who said Exxon deals under Mr Tillerson helped Russian President Vladimir Putin amass "slush funds".

Mr Cardin said he also was troubled that Mr Tillerson’s opening statement made “no mention about the direct, confirmed cyberattack by Russia on America”.


“Moscow directs efforts to undermine democracy with propaganda, false news, cyberattacks, funding for populist political parties abroad,” Mr Cardin said. “So perhaps it should come as no surprise that these nefarious activities have reached our shores. But it’s stunning nonetheless.”

Yet even Mr Tillerson’s remarks mark a sharp departure from comments by Mr Trump, who has called for a friendlier relationship with Mr Putin. They are also a stark turnaround for an oil baron who staked billions of dollars on Russia’s crude bonanza and as recently as 3 ½ years ago was feted by Russia with its Order of Friendship.

One of Mr 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, Mr Tillerson faces the challenge of assuring lawmakers that he can pursue the broader interests of US foreign policy after his 41-year career at Exxon, the world’s largest energy company by market value.

Hacking unmentioned

In his testimony, Mr Tillerson said Russia has acted against US interests and urged an “open and frank dialogue” so that “we know how to chart our own course.” But he made no mention of the US intelligence findings that Russia hacked into last year’s presidential campaign, leaking documents in what the spy agencies say became an effort to help Mr Trump win. Russia has denied responsibility for the hacking.

After Mr Cardin, other Democrats will also press Mr Tillerson on the issue during questioning, as well as news reports that US intelligence officials have informed Trump they’ve received unsubstantiated information that the Russian government had compiled potentially damaging personal and financial information on him.

Mr Trump denounced those reports on Twitter as “fake news”.

The Kremlin also denied the allegations Wednesday.

Asked to comment on Mr 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,” Mr Peskov said. “We understand that Mr Tillerson will continue to be rather firm in following his line.”

In a nod to senators from both parties who are seeking tighter restrictions on Russia after the hacking, Mr Tillerson said the US should use “economic aid and economic sanctions , where appropriate, as instruments of foreign policy.”

Exxon has been hurt by sanctions against Russia that stalled its drilling plans there.

Mr Tillerson said he was trying to explain what he called Mr Trump’s “bold new commitment” to advancing U.S. priorities abroad. At the same time, the speech charted a foreign policy vision that differs with Trump’s in important ways.

Mr Tillerson said the world risked 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.

Senator Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who heads the committee, said Tillerson's job will be to "restore U.S. credibility around the world."

In an implicit criticism of President Barack Obama’s policies, Mr Tillerson painted a portrait of a US 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 said the US must abide by the phrase the Boy Scouts cherish: “On my honor.”

‘Radical Islam’

Among global issues Tillerson mentioned was “radical Islam.” He said defeating Islamic State terrorists must be “our foremost priority in the Middle East.” He called out North Korea and Iran, which he said had been allowed to get away with violations of the agreement that limited its nuclear program.

Mr Tillerson also faulted China for failing to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program and for stealing U.S. intellectual property.

“We need to see the positive dimensions in our relationship with China as well,” he said. “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.”

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.

- Bloomberg