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Tillerson to call Russia ‘a danger’ in confirmation testimony

Rex Tillerson
Rex Tillerson

Russia poses a danger to the U.S. 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., will tell senators at his confirmation hearing.

“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.”

The remarks are a sharp departure from comments by Trump, who has called for a friendlier relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. 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.

Hacking Unmentioned

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 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!”

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.”

‘Radical Islam’

Among global issues 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.

“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.”

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.

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