Tillerson: I never lobbied against Russia sanctions

Tillerson: I never lobbied against Russia sanctions
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Rex Tillerson on Wednesday denied that he or his former company, Exxon Mobil, lobbied against imposing sanctions on Russia.

“I have never lobbied against sanctions. ...To my knowledge, Exxon never directly lobbied against sanctions,” the prospective secretary of State said in response to a question from Sen. Bob MenendezRobert MenendezBipartisan group, Netflix actress back bill for American Latino Museum The Mideast-focused Senate letter we need to see Taiwan deserves to participate in United Nations MORE (D-N.J.).

“All the other actions taken there were taken there, they were all undertaken with a great deal of transparency and openness and engagement to the process,” he added.

Soon after, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerBob CorkerPolicymakers forget duty to protect taxpayers from financial failures Overnight Defense: GOP chairman moves ahead with 0B defense bill | Lawmakers eye 355 ship navy | Senate panel seeks answers on shoot down of Syrian jet Overnight Cybersecurity: Trump tweetstorm on Russia probe | White House reportedly pushing to weaken sanctions bill | Podesta to testify before House Intel MORE (R-Tenn.) chimed in, saying he had spoken to Tillerson about the sanctions when they were being debated in Congress.

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“It’s my understanding — I think you called me during this time — that your concern with these sanctions that were in place relative to Iran were not that they were put in place, but that the Europeans had put them in a way that was different and caused an adverse situation for U.S. businesses,” Corker said. 

Outside of correcting Corker to say he had called regarding Russian sanctions, not Iranian sanctions, Tillerson confirmed that the phone call had taken took place.  

Lobbying disclosure forms filed by Exxon Mobil show that the company had lobbied in 2016 on a piece of legislation that levied sanctions on Russia. 

Later in the hearing, Tillerson sought to clarify his answer. He said Exxon Mobil was not lobbying on whether the sanctions should be implemented, but instead asked for more time to remove its interests from Russia if the sanctions went into place. 

“Exxon Mobil participated in understanding how the sanctions were going to be constructed and was asked and provided information as to how that might impact American business interests,” he said. 

“The only engagement I had was after the sanctions were in place,” he added. 

Immediate sanctions threatened an oil well the company was digging, so Tillerson said he spoke with the administration to “explain to them there was significant risk to people and the environment — we were fully going to comply with the sanctions but compliance went immediate evacuation of all these people that were going to put lives at risk and the environment at risk.” 

That explanation didn't convince Democratic Sen. Chris MurphyChris MurphyDems push for more action on power grid cybersecurity Senate panel demands Trump's legal rationale for shooting Syrian jet Dems limited in their ability to slow ObamaCare vote MORE (Conn.), who called his comment a "distinction without a difference."  

Menendez pulled out printed pages of lobbying disclosure reports filed by Exxon going back to at least 2009, listing legislation that would further impose sanctions on Russia. One form described a lobbying topic as "Russian Aggression Prevention Act, provisions related to energy."

"You weren't lobbying for sanctions on energy, were you?" Menendez asked.

A tense exchange about lobbying disclosure requirements followed, with Tillerson saying that the forms may have been a listing of a subject that was merely discussed.

"Let me edify you for the future," the New Jersey senator said. "You don't need a lobbying disclosure form to simply seek information and clarification on a bill. Lobbying, specifically, is to promote a view, a position or whatnot."

Exxon Mobil in a tweet denied taking a position on the sanctions.

Tillerson's ties to Russia have been under scrutiny throughout his confirmation hearing Wednesday. He long handled Exxon's accounts in Russia, and was bestowed a friendship award from Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Senators have pushed for Tillerson to take a tough stance on Russia, particularly in the wake of the intelligence community's assessment that the country sought to interfere in the presidential election. 

President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOPINION: Dear media, Americans don't care about Obama's legacy Make America’s classroom and workplaces safe again Preet Bharara emailed DOJ about phone call from Trump: report MORE has pushed back on the intelligence community's assessment, and many senators are concerned that he will soften U.S. policy towards Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. 

Separately in the hearing, Tillerson said he has yet to talk with President-elect Donald Trump about the specifics of Russia policy.

This story was updated at 3:34 p.m.