WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s choice as secretary of state, former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, denied Wednesday that he had pressed the U.S. to avoid sanctioning Russia over foreign-policy disputes. The record, though, is not so clear.
The nominee testified at his confirmation hearing that “I have never lobbied against sanctions personally” and “to my knowledge, Exxon never directly lobbied against sanctions.”
There’s ample evidence, though, that the company was active in seeking to protect its interests in Russia. As a bill to impose sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region moved through Congress in 2014, Exxon sought to influence the outcome, according to congressional records and data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog on money and politics. President Barack Obama signed the measure into law later that year.
Given a second chance on the subject at the Senate hearing, Tillerson sought to clarify his answer by saying his opposition came after sanctions were imposed and that he expressed security-related concerns.
Tillerson has spoken of his almost two-decade relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the time, his company’s stake in a lucrative offshore drilling project with the Russian state oil company Rosneft was under threat. He made numerous White House visits, to no avail.
The new U.S. sanctions banned the transfer to Russia of advanced offshore and shale technology, and Exxon was ordered to stop drilling in the Kara Sea, leaving the site’s potential riches untapped. Tillerson’s main partner, Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, was added to a U.S. sanctions blacklist.
Tillerson has spoken publicly of his desire to see the sanctions lifted, which would benefit Exxon.
At Exxon’s 2014 shareholder meeting, Tillerson said, “We always encourage the people who are making those decisions to consider the very broad collateral damage of who are they really harming.”
As a general matter, Tillerson testified at the hearing, “sanctions are an important and powerful tool. But designing poor sanctions, and having poor and ineffective sanctions, can have a worse effect than having no sanctions at all if they convey a weak response.”
It’s important to design sanctions that are “carefully crafted,” Tillerson said. They should be “carefully targeted with an intended effect and then enforced.”