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Portman pushes Tillerson on Ukraine in confirmation hearing

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Former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson faced questioning from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday as its members weighed his nomination for Secretary of State.

During the questioning, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman was one of two committee members who challenged Tillerson on his connections with Russia. If either Portman or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the other skeptic, vote against Tillerson’s confirmation in the committee, his nomination could end there. That’s assuming the Democrats on the committee join the two GOP senators in opposition to Trump’s nominee.

Tillerson’s ties to Russia have been called into question by hardliners in the GOP due to his history at ExxonMobil. While CEO, Tillerson negotiated ExxonMobil’s access to the Russian Arctic Shelf, possibly housing around 20 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas resources. To put a number value on ExxonMobil’s relationship with Russia, the company reported a loss of $1 billion due to sanctions imposed on Russia by the White House. Tillerson lobbied Washington against the sanctions, something he denied in the committee hearing despite clear evidence to the contrary. Exxon then took to Twitter to explain its ex-CEO’s less than clear stance stating, “Let’s be clear: we engage with lawmakers to discuss sanction impacts, not whether or not sanctions should be imposed.”

Rubio ended up stealing the show with a few soundbites that dominated cable news on Tuesday night, but Portman also maintained his hard-line position on Russia by pushing Tillerson on his possible cozy relationship with the Kremlin.

Portman opened his line of questioning by saying many Ohioans have ties to eastern and central Europe, namely Ukraine. Portman has been concerned with the situation in Ukraine since the Russian government annexed Crimea in 2014. In 2015, Portman went on a fact-finding mission to Ukraine in order to better understand the situation, meeting with President Petro Poroshenko during his visit. Portman also sits on the Senate Ukraine Caucus.

Portman then drilled Tillerson in a series of questions regarding Ukraine.

Portman: Can you clarify that you believe Article Five (of the North Atlantic Treaty), creates a binding obligation to assist any member of the alliance that is a victim of aggression regardless of their size or geographic location?

Tillerson: Yes, sir, I do.

Portman then reminded the committee and Tillerson of the Budapest Memorandum, which states that upon Ukraine’s abandonment of its nuclear arsenal, signatories including Russia, China, the United States, the United Kingdom and France would respect Ukrainian independence, sovereignty and existing borders. Portman went on to say Russia broke that agreement and asked Tillerson if he felt the annexation of Crimea was an illegal act. Tillerson agreed that it was illegal.

Finally, Portman came to his final point in the Ukrainian situation and asked Tillerson if he would support providing Ukraine with “lethal defensive weapons” to defend themselves. Tillerson said he would first consult with the National Security Council but he would personally support it.

As of publication, there is no set date for a vote on Tillerson’s confirmation but with Portman at least eased toward the prospective secretary of state, Rubio remains a hard sell in light of Tillerson’s history with the Russian government.  

Updated on Jan. 17: Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, announced Tillerson’s confirmation will be put to a vote on Monday, Jan. 23.

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