Scrutiny of the incoming US administration intensified on Wednesday. President-elect Donald Trump held his first formal press conference in New York and confirmation hearings for his cabinet choices continued in the Senate. There, the focus was on Rex Tillerson, the long-serving Exxon Mobil chief executive, who has been nominated for secretary of state.
- At his press conference, Mr Trump hit out at fresh claims about his ties to the Kremlin and detailed how he plans to separate his business interests to avoid a conflict of interests.
- Mr Trump gave his strongest indication yet that he believes Russia was behind the hacking during the election.
- Pharma stocks fell after Mr Trump targeted the industry over drug pricing. The peso also whipsawed after his comments on a ‘major border tax’.
- In DC, Mr Tillerson was pushed hard by senators on the foreign relations committee regarding his ties to Russia.
- The confirmation hearing of Jeff Sessions for attorney-general also continued, with prominent civil rights leaders testifying against him.
Additional reporting by Ed Crooks.
Welcome to the Financial Times live blog covering the Senate confirmation hearings of Donald Trump’s cabinet picks.
Today senators will begin questioning Exxon chief Rex Tillerson, nominated for secretary of state, and continue grilling senator Jeff Sessions, up for attorney-general.
On Tuesday, Mr Sessions had distanced himself from Mr Trump’s campaign rhetoric by promising to recuse himself from any prosecution of Hillary Clinton if confirmed as attorney-general and saying he had no reason to doubt that Russia sought to influence the US election.
The hearing was the first in what could be a combative series of confirmation hearings, the FT’s David J Lynch wrote:
Mr Sessions’ efforts to step back from the campaign’s incendiary rhetoric and the president-elect’s more contentious policies could set a template for other controversial nominees, who face questions about their ties to Russia and hold views on climate change and regulation that are frequently outside the Washington consensus.
In his prepared statement, Mr Tillerson had set out his case to be Mr Trump’s secretary of state, with a call for the US to chart a new relationship with Russia that took into account Moscow’s interests and ambitions — even as he labelled the country a “danger” that needed to be held to account for its actions.
His comments will no doubt be parsed in the context of the latest revelations about Russia’s alleged interference in the US election.
US media reported that the spy agencies briefed Mr Trump and President Barack Obama on claims Russian spies had compromising personal information on the president-elect. The former Exxon chief is also set to call for a tough US approach on China and an unambiguous drive against radical Islam.
“[We] need an open and frank dialogue with Russia regarding its ambitions, so that we know how to chart our own course,” Mr Tillerson will say, according to his statement seen by the Washington Post. “Where co-operation with Russia based on common interests is possible, such as reducing the global threat of terrorism, we ought to explore these options.”
But he added: “Russia must know that we will be accountable to our commitments and those of our allies, and that Russia must be held to account for its actions.”
Today’s hearings are two of more than a half a dozen that will begin this week. Mr Tillerson’s hearing is expect to be among the most controversial, with even some Republicans questioning his appointment. It could give Democrats an opening to block at least one of Mr Trump’s key appointment. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer says Democrats plan to target eight of Mr Trump’s nominees.
Robert Gates, former CIA director, and ex-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, have openly supported Mr Tillerson’s nomination. But two prominent Republican senators, Lindsey Graham and John McCain, indicated recently on NBC’s Meet the Press that they have not made up their minds.
Mr McCain said he still had “additional questions” about Mr Tillerson’s “relationship with Putin personally”. Mr Graham suggested he would have no problem pushing back against Mr Trump, especially when it came to the views of the president-elect and his cabinet on Russia. “I feel an obligation to say ‘no’ where I must,” he said.
Senator Marco Rubio, a ranking member of the Senate foreign relations committee, has called for tougher sanctions on Russia over Crimea, Ukraine, Syria and alleged computer hacking, and could be reluctant to approve Mr Tillerson’s appointment if the former oil chief suggests he would favour dropping the existing sanctions and taking a softer stance towards Mr Putin.
Rex Tillerson has just entered the room, says the FT’s Courtney Weaver who is in the hearing today. She says this is expected to be one of the toughest confirmation hearings for a Trump appointee.
Here is what Democratic Senator Ben Cardin will say in his opening remarks:
Mr Tillerson, I am sure you can understand why I and many of my colleagues have deep concerns about your relationship with Mr Putin.
And this is not simply a question of what you saw when you gazed into his eyes—you don’t strike me as someone likely to be naïve—but also about how Exxon conducted itself in supporting, directly and indirectly, funding for the tools that Putin has used to crush democracy and dissent at home and to sow divisions abroad.
While I do not suggest it was your intent, it is frankly not too great a distance from Exxon’s business partnerships to Putin’s Kremlin-controlled slush funds essential for his “disinformation” campaigns around the world.
You will also be representing a President who has made it absolutely clear that he may blatantly ignore the consensus of the 17 independent intelligence agencies who have said that the Russians interfered with our elections in an unprecedented way.
This same President, to whom you will report, has also made it clear that he may ignore Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, his illegal annexation of Crimea, and his intervention in Syria – where Russian forces partnered with Iran, Hezbollah, and Shia militias to shift battlefield momentum toward a dictator guilty of war crimes. Russia itself is culpable of war crimes for its backing of Bashar al-Assad who has starved, barrel bombed, and tortured the Syrian people into submission.
And yet, President-elect Trump may take quick steps to make Putin a close ally of the United States of America.
So there is a serious discussion to be had here today about Russia, and the President-elect’s plans for Putin. And we need to know and understand your views on these critical issues of national security.
A bit more the FT’s Courtney Weaver:
We’re expecting a a number of disruptions during the hearing today. There is a group of about a dozen people dressed in yellow ponchos that have the words “Free Iran” on it. But obviously, the main focus of the hearing is expected to be Mr Tillerson’s relationship with high-ranking Russian officials including Vladimir Putin and Igor Sechin, something we wrote about earlier this week.
Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul notes that it’s a “smart” move to have Sam Nunn, the former Georgia senator, and former defence secretary Robert Gates introduce, to endorse Rex Tillerson.
Senator John Cornyn of Texas says Mr Tillerson has shown “exceptional acumen” in his leadership of ExxonMobil. But some industry analysts and executives would challenge that, writes the FT’s US energy editor Ed Crooks. The consensus view would probably be that he has been a solid, rather than outstanding, CEO, certainly by comparison with his acclaimed predecessor Lee Raymond.
At Exxon, he has been faulted for being slow to recognise the potential of North America’s shale oil and gas reserves, and for overpaying in the $41bn deal to acquire XTO Energy agreed in 2009.
More from the FT’s Courtney Weaver:
It’s important to note that Mr Tillerson’s hearing is unfolding at the same time that Mr Trump is responding to claims that Moscow sought to cultivate and compromise him. Mr Trump has forcefully denied the unverified allegations about his personal conduct and ties to Moscow that were contained in a dossier that has been circling around Washington.
Senator John McCain has just released a statement about the dossier, admitting that he handed the reports over to the director of the FBI.
“Late last year, I received sensitive information that has since been made public. Upon examination of the contents, and unable to make a judgment about their accuracy, I delivered the information to the Director of the FBI. That has been the extent of my contact with the FBI or any other government agency regarding this issue.”
Here is McCain’s statement in full.
Robert Gates says he believes Mr Tillerson will “stop a dangerous downward spiral” in our relationship with Russia, echoing Mr Nunn who also says Mr Tillerson’s Russia experience should be seen as an asset instead of a strike against him.
For those readers that can’t access Twitter, the FT’s Courntery Weaver has just tweeted that protesters have started minor disruptions. Shouts of “Reject Rex!” could be heard from outside the room where the confirmation hearing is taking place – but have now stopped.
Rex Tillerson is sitting very patiently while Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, gives his opening statement. He says he believes Mr Tillerson could be an “inspired choice” as secretary of state.
More from the FT’s Ed Crooks about Robert Gates’ endorsement of Mr Tillerson earlier in the session:
Mr Gates, the former secretary of defence who is, like Mr Tillerson, also a former president of the Boy Scouts of America, is the second person to mention the importance of the Scouts to the nominee.
Mr Tillerson himself makes reference to the organisation in his prepared opening statement. He writes: “One of our bedrock ideals is honesty. Indeed, the phrase ‘on my honor’ begins the Boy Scout Oath, and it must undergird our foreign policy.”
See also our profile of Mr Tillerson from last year.
Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the committee, has just finished his opening statement, which we flagged earlier, in which he expressed “deep concerns” about Mr Tillerson’s relationship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Now that he has finished, Mr Tillerson is now giving his opening statement.
The FT’s Courtney Weaver notes there is a striking difference between the opening remarks of Senator Bob Corker, the committee’s Republican chair, and Senator Ben Cardin, the committee’s ranking Democrat:
While Mr Corker suggested that he believed that Mr Trump’s selection of Mr Tillerson might “indeed be an inspired choice” and said that Mr Tillerson could not be expected to speak “on Trump’s behalf”, Mr Cardin has used his opening remarks to raise deep concerns about Mr Tillerson’s views on Russia, particularly against the backdrop of the views on Russia held by the president-elect.
Mr Tillerson has started commenting on the US’s relations with China and Russia.
He says China and US’s economic well being is “deeply intertwined” and that the country is a valuable ally. However, on issues such as China’s island building, he said it has acted with disregard to international norms.
The FT’s Courtney Weaver has more on his comments on Russia:
Mr Tillerson taking clear steps to reassure the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he takes the threat of Russia seriously. This is something that Republican senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio wanted to hear before they voted to confirm him.
In his opening remarks Mr Tillerson acknowledged that “Russia today poses a danger”. He added: “It has invaded Ukraine, including the taking of Crimea…Our Nato allies are right to be alarmed”.
However, he blamed US foreign policy under Obama for many of these developments. “We backtracked on our allies; sent mixed signals…We did not recognise that Russia does not think like we do,” Tillerson asserted.
Mr Tillerson has finished his prepared statement and the questioning has started
Mr Tillerson says he promises to uphold the Magnitsky Law, the law passed by Congress to punish Russian officials involved in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in prison, writes the FT’s Courtney Weaver.
Mr Tillerson says he does not believe Russia had territorial claims to Crimea. “That was a taking of territory that was not theirs.”
He said Crimea annexation “certainly caught me by surprise”. Asked what he would have done differently in response to that action, had he been US secretary of state at the time, would have been to provide more military assistance to Ukraine, more intelligence.
Mr Tillerson has just expanded on the invasion of Crimea after being asked by Ben Cardin, the ranking Democratic senator, what his response would have been.
Mr Tillerson his recommendation to the invasion of Crimea would have been to tell Ukraine to put more forces on its eastern border and to give Kiev more Nato support in gathering intelligence. He says a show of force like that would have sent a strong message to Russia.
Mr Tillerson takes a strong line on standing up to Russian expansion, writes the FT’s Ed Crooks.
“I think what Russian leadership would have understood is a powerful response,” Mr Tillerson said.
“Taking of Crimea was an act of force… So they require a proportional show of force to show there will be no more taking of territory.”
Asked about his position on climate change, Mr Tillerson implied that he believes the US should remain in the Paris climate accord agreed in 2015.
“I think it’s important that the United States retains its seat at the table,” he says.
“Questions about climate change do require a global response. No one country is going to solve this alone.”
What Democratic senators (and some Republican senators) were waiting to hear from Mr Tillerson today was that he agreed with the current sanctions against Russia and would uphold them, writes the FT’s Courtney Weaver.
They appear to have gotten their answer:
“Senator, sanctions are a powerful tool and they’re an important tool in terms of deterring additional action.”
Now senator Marco Rubio is quizzing Mr Tillerson on Russia’s role in the Russian hacking attacks.
Mr Tillerson says he has had “no classified briefings” on the cyberattacks but said that the declassified report, released last week, “clearly is troubling”.
Asked by Mr Rubio if he believed Vladimir Putin had personally overseen the attack, Mr Tillerson initially replied he was “not in a position to be able to make that [distinction]” but subsequently backtracks to say he believe it’s “a fair assumption”.
Marco Rubio, who was one of the Republicans defeated by Mr Trump in the race to clinch the party’s presidential nomination, is pushing Mr Tillerson on his relationship with Russia. He has just asked Mr Tillerson whether he considers Putin a war criminal.
Mr Tillerson replied: “I wouldn’t use that term.” Rubio then went on to describe multiple actions by Russia in Allepo (below), which he says amounts to war crimes.
Mr Tillerson replies: “These are very very serious charges to make . . . and I would would want to be fully informed before advising the president.” Mr Tillerson argued he would need to see the classified material available before forming his opinion on who was responsible.
The FT’s Ed Crooks has more on Mr Rubio’s very strong attack on Mr Tillerson’s views on Russia.
He showed a list of opponents of Mr Putin who have been killed, and asks whether Mr Tillerson believes they were killed on the orders of the Russian president.
Mr Tillerson replied that he would need to have access to more information, including classified intelligence, to form a judgment on that.
Mr Rubio replied: “None of this is classified, Mr Tillerson. These people are dead.”
Asked by Mr Rubio if Putin and his cronies were responsible for ordering the murder of Russian dissidents and the Kremlin’s political opponents, Mr Tillerson responds that he does not have enough information to answer the question as he has not received classified briefings.
Mr Rubio, a noted Russia hawk, was the big question mark going into this hearing, writes the FT’s Courtney Weaver. Would he side with fellow Republicans and support Mr Tillerson’s nomination? Or would he break with his party and try to block his nomination?
We won’t have our official answer until after the hearing is concluded. But Mr Rubio certainly did not give Mr Tillerson an easy ride.
Over the course of his questioning of Mr Tillerson, Mr Rubio has said that he found his answers on new Russian sanctions “troubling” and said that he found it “discouraging” that Mr Tillerson refused to call Putin “a war criminal”.
New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez asked Mr Tillerson whether sanctions were an effective tool. Mr Tillerson said: “I think it’s important to acknowledge [sanctions] by their design are going to harm American business.”
Asked about his past comments criticising US sanctions on Russia, the FT’s Ed Crooks writes that Mr Tillerson draws a contrast between the interest of US businesses and the US as a whole.
“Sanctions do impact American business interests,” he says, but in defending US objectives “sanctions are a powerful tool.”
He adds: “Let’s design them well… and then enforce them fully.”
Wisconsin Republican senator Ron Johnson asked Mr Tillerson to describe his views on Russia, writes the FT’s Lauren Leatherby. Mr Tillerson said he believed that Russia, more than anything, wants to re-establish its role in the world order.
“They have a view that following the break up of the Soviet Union, they were mistreated in some respects in the transition period,” Mr Tillerson said. “They believe they deserve a rightful role in the global world order because they are a nuclear power. They’re searching for how to establish that.”
He continued to say he believed that in the 20 years since the demise of the Soviet Union, the Russians have not been in a position to assert themselves. Mr Tillerson said their actions that we are witnessing now are an assertion on their part to make themselves a global power once again, to “force a conversation” about where Russia belongs in the world order.
On US-Russia relations, Mr Tillerson said, “There is a scope to define a different relationship that can bring down the temperature around the conflicts we have today.”
We will now be turning our attention to New York, where we are getting close to the start of the first formal press conference by Mr Trump since he won the election in November.
Mr Trump has not faced challenging questions from the press since his election, instead relying on Twitter to respond to criticism.
Reporters are likely to press the president-elect on his recent comments on Russia and US intelligence after reports of Russia interfering in the US election.
Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, is introducing Mr Trump, and has started by attacking Buzzfeed for publishing the full Russian dossier online. He also attacked CNN for running with the story. He described the decision to run with the story as “shameful and disgraceful” and a “sad and pathetic attempt to get clicks”.
Now vice president-elect Mike Pence has attacked the decision to run with the Russian dossier story and dubs it “fake news”, and says the American people are “sicked and tired of it” . . . before Trump takes centre stage.
Mr Trump has now taken the stage with a mixture of flattery and criticism to news organisations, praising those who reviewed the dossier claims of his ties to Russia and did not publish it; while lashing out on the groups – CNN and BuzzFeed – who had published the news without naming them.
Mr Trump said press conferences were familiar territory as he had given many as an election candidate. But he had stopped because “we were getting a lot of inaccuracies”.
Trump has moved from attacking the media on to car makers and through to the F-35 stealth fighter, the most expensive defence programme in history, that he attacked previously for being way over budget and then said he was looking at a less capable rival aircraft – the F-18 Super Hornet – to possibly replace some of the more advanced jets.
Read more here
The main message at the top of the conferences was on jobs, saying he would be the “greatest job producer that God ever created”.
He also took aim at the pharmaceutical industry, saying it was “getting away with murder.”
Even though the US was a big producer of pharmaceuticals, “there is very little bidding on drugs. We don’t bid properly.” That was going to change under a Trump administration, he said.
The markets have reacted to Mr Trump’s remarks about the pharma industry, reports the FT’s markets editor Michael McKenzie:
Nasdaq Biotech index drops as much as 3 per cent after Trump mentions pharma. Now down 2.8 per cent on the day and set for its first daily negative performance this year. Gains for 2017 trimmed to 5.4 per cent.
Mr Trump ended his initial remarks and opened the floor to questions. The first question asked Mr Trump if he agreed with the assertion that Vladimir Putin was behind the hacks.
Mr Trump replied: “I think it was Russia, but I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people.”
Mr Trump also diminished the attacks by mentioning the Office of Personnel Management hacks that occurred in the summer of 2015: “They didn’t make a big deal out of that.”
“We have much hacking going on and one of the things we are going to do is….we are some of the best minds…we are going to put those minds together and form a defence.”
He repeated his claim that the Democratic National Committee had left itself open to hacking. He said, by contrast, that the hackers had been unable to hack the Republican National Committee, and if they had hacked the RNC, they would have released that information too.
The Mexican peso also took a hit after Mr Trump talked about bringing automotive jobs back from Mexico, reports Roger Blitz, the FT’s currency correspondent:
Donald Trump’s reference to bringing car jobs back to the US sent the Mexican peso down to a new all-time low of 22.00 pesos, but it has since recovered to 21.92 pesos
Read more here.
Mr Trump is still being pushed on his view on Putin and asks the press “Do you think Hillary Clinton was going to be tougher on Putin than me? Give me a break.”
Mr Trump reiterated that he has “no dealings” with Russia and very little debt as a real estate developer.
He also says he will not be releasing his tax returns to prove his financial standing. “As you know they’re under audit,” he said, adding: “You learn very little from a tax return.”
Pushed on the issue of whether the American people would want him to release his tax returns, he replies:
No, I don’t think so I won
Mr Trump said he doesn’t think the US public cares at all about his tax releases.
Mr Trump has finally addressed the stacks of files that were placed to the left of the podium prior to the press conference’s start.
The files, he said, are just some of the paperwork that help ensure that he will have no conflicts of interest during his time in office.
Trump has stepped off the podium for the moment and given it over to his tax attorney Sheri Dillon who is reading from a very long pre-prepared statement explaining how the Trump Organisation is going to run after the president-elect assumes office
More from Roger Blitz, the FT’s currency correspondent:
The dollar index, which measures the greenback against a basket of its peers, was 0.8 per cent higher at the start of Trump’s comments, but fell away to be only a third of a per cent higher.
Trump attorney Sheri Dillon said the president-elect would not divest himself of his corporate assets as this would actually exacerbate any potential conflicts of interest. Whatever price paid for them would immediately be subject to scrutiny and doubt, she said.
The company will be turned over to his sons, Eric and Don, so that they may “preserve the company and its iconic assets”. Mr Trump’s daughter Ivanka will resign from all Trump offices to move to DC and will spend her time settling her family into the new city.
He will not be placing his assets into a blind trust, instead the Trump Organisation will not be entering into any new foreign deals.
Trump attorney Sheri Dillon then announced that Mr Trump would voluntarily donate all profits from foreign government payments to his hotels to the US Treasury.
“Paying for a hotel room is not a gift or a present. It is not an emolument,” Mr Trump said.
Trump is now back up on the podium and has been asked about whether his cabinet picks have conflicts of interest.
I think we have one of the greatest cabinets ever put together . . . we are hearing that from many people . . . people are so happy.
More from the FT’s market editor, Michael McKenzie, on investor reaction:
Trump’s first press conference in six months has been a disappointment for markets in the early stages. We are seeing the dollar retreat, helping the Mexican peso turn positive on the day, while the pound has climbed back above $1.21.
Pharma stocks are not happy after the president-elect talked about a more competitive bidding process for buying drugs. The Nasdaq biotech index has dropped as much as 3.65 per cent. Shares in Lockheed Martin are off more than 1 per cent after the maker of the F-35 fighter was also singled out by Mr Trump.
As the presser resumes, the S&P 500 loiters in negative territory, helping providing a boost for Treasury bond prices.
Mr Trump also addressed companies moving across borders, looking to move from Michigan to Mexico.
“The word is out … its not going to happen any more,” he said, indicating “a very large border tax” is on its way.
He also says Mexico will “reimburse us” for the cost of building a wall to cut down on any illegal immigration. He says the US taxpayer will pick up the bill initially.
“I want to get the wall started, I don’t want to wait a year and a half [while negotiating with Mexico] before building the wall.”
Mr Trump estimates he will nominate his pick for Supreme Court justice to replace “the great great Justice Scalia” within the first couple weeks of entering office.
Mr Trump continued to lash out against media organisations, reports the FT’s Lauren Leatherby.
Mr Trump called BuzzFeed, the organization that published the full document alleging Trump’s ties to Russia, a “failing pile of garbage”. He also said that BuzzFeed would “suffer the consequences” of its choice to publish the document.
CNN Senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta pressed hard to ask Mr Trump a question, but Mr Trump repeatedly refused Mr Acosta’s request, saying CNN is “fake news”.
Back in DC, at the Senate’s confirmation hearing of Rex Tillerson, the FT’s Ed Crooks has an update:
There has been a long discussion of Mr Tillerson’s views on climate change and policy to respond to the threat. He made clear he stood by the view that Exxon has expressed under his leadership: that the threat of global warming caused by human activity is real and should be addressed by policy.
“I came to the conclusion a few years ago that the risk of climate change does exist, and the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken,” he said.
However, he also cast doubt on the confidence that should be placed in climate models, saying: “The increase in the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.”
He also rejected the idea of identifying all the officials in the administration who had worked on climate change policy, as had been suggested by Mr Trump’s transition team.
Asked to confirm or deny if his team had any contact with Moscow leading up to the election, Mr Trump failed to give a clear answer. He instead focused on the latter part of the reporter’s question, which asked Mr Trump about what he would say to Vladimir Putin about hacking right now. Mr Trump answered that Russia shouldn’t be doing it and won’t do it once he becomes president. “Russia will respect our country more” when Mr Trump is president, he said.
Mr Trump has brought the rather chaotic press conference to an end by rolling out his best-known quote from the reality TV show The Apprentice, which made him a worldwide celebrity. Pointing to the thousands of documents that he had on stage with him, he said they were “just a piece of the many, many companies that are being put into trust to be run by my two sons and I hope at the end of eight years I will come back and I’ll say: ‘Oh you did a good job.’ Otherwise if they do a bad job, I’ll say: ‘You’re fired!’”
We will now be transitioning back to DC, where the Senate is holding a confirmation hearing of Rex Tillerson for secretary of state.
While the Trump press conference was on, the FT’s energy editor Ed Crooks says we missed a discussion on climate change policy:
Mr Tillerson reiterated his support for a carbon tax as a more effective way to cut emissions than the cap-and-trade system adopted in the EU.
He said he would continue to support a carbon tax, on two conditions: that it replaced the existing “hodge-podge” of emissions reduction policies, and that any revenue raised was returned in cuts to other taxes, such as the payroll tax.
“Let’s simplify the system: this is the one and only mechanism that we have to try to influence people’s choices… [And] this is simply a mechanism to incentivise choices people are making. It’s not a revenue raiser.”
However, he said that as secretary of state, he would not have any role in supporting a carbon tax. “When it gets to tax policy, that’s going to be for other agencies to conduct,” he said.
He also made clear that on climate policy he would follow Mr Trump’s lead.
“He was elected, and I will carry out his policies in order to be as successful as possible,” Mr Tillerson said.
Also in the hearing, Mr Tillerson again rejected the isolationist tone of some of Mr Trump’s comments, writes the FT’s Ed Crooks.
Asked what would happen if another Nato member were attacked, he referred to Article 5 of the organisation’s founding treaty, which means that an attack against one member is considered an attack against all.
“Article 5 commitment is inviolable, and the US is going to stand by that commitment.”
Mr Tillerson was once again questioned about whether Exxon lobbied against Russia sanctions, writes the FT’s Courtney Weaver.
Mr Tillerson alleged that the news reports at the time were incorrect. He says Exxon lobbied the US government over how the sanctions would be implemented – and consulted the White House about how Exxon was expected to comply with those sanctions.
Earlier, Mr Tillerson clarified his position on making decisions in office that could affect Exxon.
In his statement of ethical undertakings submitted before the hearing, Mr Tillerson promised to recuse himself from any decisions affecting Exxon for a year after he left the company, at the end of last year.
He repeated his commitment to stick to that statutory recusal period, but made clear that it covered only decisions that would directly and specifically affect the company.
When it came to questions affecting the oil and gas industry generally, he added, “the scope of that is so broad that I would not expect to have to recuse myself”.
He also said he did not expect to have any close or regular contact with Darren Woods, his successor at Exxon, and said secretaries of state did not generally talk to US CEOs.
“I would not expect that I would be taking any calls from any business leaders,” he said.
Lauren Leatherby, a FT data whiz, recently took a look at Mr Tillerson’s financial disclosures.
His assets are worth at least $232m. She writes:
The majority of his wealth comes in the form of Exxon stock and restricted stock awards, which he announced he would give up in exchange for a $179m cash payout into an independent trust if he is confirmed as secretary of state. The plan is intended to clear conflict of interest concerns while Mr Tillerson serves as the country’s top diplomat.
Bloomberg reports that Mr Tillerson could be worth as much as $400m, and the Wall Street Journal reports he could be worth up to half a billion. In addition to his interests and assets in Exxon, Mr Tillerson has between $25m and $100m in other assets (nominees are only required to report their assets within bands).
Mr Tillerson was the first of Mr Trump’s cabinet nominees to have submitted his financial disclosure form, which is required of all of Mr Trump’s cabinet picks. Many of the nominees have still not submitted their financial disclosures, which the Office of Government Ethics has called a “cause for alarm” if the Senate moves forward with hearings without first vetting candidates’ financial ethics.
The Senate is also holding a second day of confirmation hearings today for senator Jeff Sessions, nominated for attorney-general. Yesterday Mr Sessions distanced himself from Trump’s campaign rhetoric on a few issues and said he would recuse himself from any prosecution of Hillary Clinton.
Today’s hearing is focused much more on Mr Sessions history of alleged, racially insensitive comments.
Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey has just finished his testimony against Mr Session’s nomination. The FT’s Lauren Leatherby has more on that.
The second day of confirmation hearings for Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, nominated for attorney-general, has begun.
New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker made history this afternoon when he become the first sitting senator to testify against another sitting senator, Mr Sessions.
Mr Booker said he wants an attorney-general who will defend the rights of women, LGBTQ populations, and immigrants and who will support voting rights for all Americans. But Mr Booker said that Mr Sessions’ record suggests he won’t.
Mr Booker finished by saying that the attorney-general position demands a “more courageous empathy” than what Mr Sessions has.
In 1986, Mr Sessions was denied a federal judgeship after a similar hearing. Lawmakers denied Sessions the position after they heard testimonies that Sessions had referred to a black prosecutor as “boy” and said he thought the Ku Klux Klan was fine “until I found out they smoked pot”.
A minor disruption occurred in the Sessions hearing, during which protesters shouted messages against Mr Sessions.
The disruption was followed by testimony from Louisiana representative Cedric Richmond. Mr Richmond said Mr Sessions is unfit to serve as attorney-general, claiming he supports a system of mass incarceration, is opposed criminal justice reform, has no track record of fighting for the rights of people of color, and cannot be relied upon to enforce the Voting Rights Act. Mr Richmond closed, telling senators that a vote for Mr Sessions would make one a “co-conspirator” to move our country backwards.
Both the hearings for Mr Tillerson and Mr Sessions are now on break. We’ll resume with the Tillerson hearing in approximately 15 minutes.
The hearing for Mr Tillerson’s nomination has now returned.
The FT’s Ed Crooks notes that before the break there was an important question on climate change by senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, where Mr Tillerson said he knew Mr Trump would want to do a full review of US participation in international agreements.
“Part of his priority in campaigning was America first,” Mr Tillerson said. “And so there’s important considerations as we commit to such accords, and as those accords are executed over time, are there any elements of that that put America at a disadvantage?”
Without mentioning the Paris climate accord specifically, he repeated his view that the US should remain part of international climate talks.
“I think it’s important for America to remain engaged in those discussions, so we are at the table expressing a view, and understanding what the impacts may be on the American people and American competitiveness.”
Cory Booker is now questioning Mr Tillerson, having just left the confirmation hearing for Jeff Sessions, writes the FT’s Courtney Weaver.
So far, Mr Booker is covering a lot that was covered during the first hours of the hearing, questioning Mr Tillerson on sanctions, and, again, what he would have done had he been in charge of the State Department during Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Mr Tillerson repeats again that he sees sanctions as a useful and important tool, but suggested it should only be used in certain situations. He again says he would have helped Ukraine with defensive forces during the annexation, had he been in President Barack Obama’s place.
“Given the dramatic taking of Crimea… sanctions were going to be insufficient… My opinion is there should have been a show of force, a military response, in defensive posture… to send the message that it stops here.”
Florida senator Marco Rubio is back into the spotlight with questions on US-Cuba relations.
Mr Tillerson said, if confirmed, he would advise Mr Trump to veto any bill to remove the travel ban on Cuba. He cautioned to say, however, he would expect a comprehensive review when considering a reversal of Barack Obama’s executive order to normalise relations with the country and lift its embargo.
While there were some mutual views there, the two clashed again on the topic of human rights with Mr Rubio grilling Mr Tillerson on Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, writes the FT’s Courtney Weaver.
The exchange prompted Mr Tillerson to give one of its most revealing exchanges in awhile. “There seems to be a misunderstanding that I see the world through a different lens. I do not,” he told Mr Rubio, adding that he shares Mr Rubio’s human rights values – but also is “clear eyed and realistic” about the way the world works.
In the second round of questioning, Mr Tillerson has already found himself in a couple of quandaries – and perhaps not the ones that observers were expecting, writes the FT’s Courtney Weaver.
In the examination, Mr Tillerson has been re-questioned on some of the remarks he made this morning, particularly his assertion that, to his knowledge, Exxon did not lobby against Russian sanctions – something that even senator Corker noted was untrue. Mr Tillerson has raised the possibility that if Exxon was lobbying in regards to the Russia sanctions – it may have been lobbying for them (something that seems very unlikely given that the sanctions hurt Exxon’s own economic interests).
Mr Tillerson is also being questioned again about his comment this morning that he and Mr Trump have not discussed what the incoming administration’s specific policies will be towards Russia.
When New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen asked about a national Muslim registry, Mr Tillerson did not outright reject such a registry, only that he would need to “have a lot more information” about the benefits of a registry – and that any registry would be unlikely to be successful if it was merely a “blanket rejection of any particular group of people”.
When asked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr Tillerson said US engagement in the region could create a more “fruitful environment”, but, he said, “in the end, this has to be settled between these two parties”.
Mr Tillerson has distinguished his views from Mr Trump’s on several points, writes the FT’s Courtney Weaver.
He says it’s unfair to characterise an entire group of people as drug dealers and rapists (a reference to Trump’s one time comment about Mexicans). And on refugees he has said it is important to continue protecting the lives of those “truly at risk”.
He added however he believes refugee programmes are at risk of being undermined. “There is a serious challenge in vetting people coming to the country,” he said, noting a lack of documentation out of Syria.
Elsewhere, the Military Times reports that James Mattis, Mr Trump’s pick for defense secretary, has cancelled a planned appearance in front of the House Armed Services Committee, writes the FT’s Courtney Weaver.
That appearance was scheduled for Thursday afternoon after his Senate confirmation hearing in the morning, the Military Times says.
The cancellation could complicate his confirmation process, though Mr Mattis is not seen as a controversial nominee. Indeed, his name did not figure among the eight that Senate Democrats said they would single out for special scrutiny.
Here is the Military Times story.
Mr Tillerson said that one of his first steps after accepting Mr Trump’s offer to serve in his cabinet was to retain outside counsel to help him achieve a clean break from ExxonMobil. Mr Tillerson was the first of Mr Trump’s cabinet picks to file his financial disclosure form with the Office of Government Ethics.
New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen thanked him for his efforts to ensure no conflicts of interest. She said: “It stands in stark contrast from what we heard from president-elect Trump today, who announced he is not going to divest himself of his vast business interests around the world.”
Hours before Mr Trump spoke about how he planned to resolve conflicts of interest concerning his business interests, Steven Mnuchin, his nominee for Treasury secretary, had done the same.
In a December letter to the Office of Government Ethics, made public on Wednesday, Mr Mnuchin said he would offload interests in 43 companies and funds within 90 days, should his nomination be approved by the US Senate. The former Goldman banker added that he would resign from 42 management positions, including roles at Dune Capital Management, the hedge fund, and a foundation he set up with his second wife, Heather.
We are now back to the issue of Cuba again, writes the FT’s Courtney Weaver.
Mr Tillerson has said he would be in favour of vetoing a bill that reverses US embargo against Cuba. However, he is facing resistance from senator Jeff Flake, a Republican, who is in favour of opening up US-Cuban relations.
Mr Flake poses the question of what a Cuban-American, with American citizenship, should do if he or she wants to go back to Cuba for a parent’s funeral, but doing so is against the law.
“Diplomatic relations is not a concession to those countries”, Flake said.
Asked what he believes he could do as secretary of state to hasten peace between Israel and Palestine, Mr Tillerson did not give any specifics. Instead, he said the situation is “extremely challenging” and mentioned twice that it “might take a different generation that isn’t carrying all that baggage” before things change.
Answering questions senator Tim Kaine (yes, that Tim Kaine), Mr Tilllerson said he – like most – dreams of a two-state solution in the Middle East but he said it was unclear whether or how quickly that might be achieved.
“Whether it can be a reality remains to be seen,” Mr Tillerson said.
If it’s the top of the hour, it must be time (again) for human rights, writes the FT’s Courtney Weaver.
Asking the questions this time: Chris Murphy, the Democratic senator from Connecticut who notes Mr Tillerson has declined to characterise Russia’s actions in Syria and extrajudicial killings by Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines as human rights violations.
Asked why he is not ready, at the current moment, to characterise these situations as human rights violations, Mr Tillerson replied: “People brag about things that they may or may not have done.”
Mr Tillerson said earlier in the day that newspaper accounts of events are not enough for him. He needs multiple sets of facts to reach a conclusion.
“I deal with facts, then I analyse, then I conclude,” Mr Tillerson said.
Asked what he thought about the United States’ decision to invade Iraq, Mr Tillerson said he believed the country’s “motives were commendable” but that it had not achieved what it set out to do when it went on, namely to stablise the region and achieve greater national security.
While Tillerson has faced a tough ride from senators, including Marco Rubio, a Republican, on his Russia views, he has impressed others.
One of those people? Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia.
Tweets McFaul: “Tillerson sounds much tougher on Russia than his future boss. Just (confirmation) talk or real policy differences ?”
As this hearing winds down, it is worth returning to today’s news of the Kremlin rebuffing memos detailing a supposed plot to compromised Mr Trump, while defeating Mrs Clinton.
Doubts in Russia about memos extend beyond the Kremlin, where Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, described the allegations as “pulp fiction” on Wednesday.
The FT’s Kathrin Hille and Max Seddon in Moscow report that while experts critical of the Russian president and foreign diplomats in Moscow say the text published by BuzzFeed contains interesting parts that may be accurate, people familiar with Mr Putin’s administration and Russia’s security services question the sourcing, substance and intentions behind it.
“Whoever wrote this knows very little about how the Kremlin works,” said a person close to a former top official who has interacted with Mr Putin socially and has in-depth knowledge of Russia’s diplomatic and defence bureaucracies.
During today’s hearing, Mr Tillerson attempted to allay concerns that he would be too soft on Russia, even if serious reports of Russian interference in the US election were substantiated. However it is unclear if Mr Tillerson was successful. He condemned Russia’s decision to annex Crimea and called the report by US intelligence agencies on Russian hacking during the US election “clearly troubling”. However he cautioned against sanctions, saying they were a weapon that should be used sparingly.
Asked, just now, if Mr Tillerson would ever be open to working with Iran where there is a confluence of interest, for instance to combat Isis, Mr Tillerson said: “That’s an area that requires exploration”.
And on Russia and Syria, Mr Tillerson said Russia’s involvement in Syria “has provided an open door for Russia to be present in the Middle East – a region it has long been absent from”. But he notes, writes the FT’s Courtney Weaver, that Russia also has its own specific issues with Isis and its own reasons to be concerned, noting that many Isis fighters are Russian speakers, suggesting that they are coming to Syria from Russia or Russia-speaking countries nearby.
“…That indicates Russia has a problem as well, in terms of where these people came from and where they might go home to as well,” Mr Tillerson said.
Republican senator Rob Portman, who asked the question on Syria, pushed back slightly on this point, saying he believes one of Russia’s main goal is to prop up the Assad regime. But Mr Portman ended his comment by wishing Mr Tilllerson well in the rest of the hearing.
Mr Tillerson said he was open to renegotiating elements of the Iran nuclear deal, saying he would keep parts of the deal that were helpful. He pushed, however, for additional ways of monitoring if Iran was in compliance and further mechanisms to prevent a violation.
He also admitted that he misspoke earlier, before the break. Iran, as a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, is prohibited from buying nuclear weapons.
Critics say his comments suggest the Trump administration is not eager to rip up the agreement.
Asked if additional sanctions on Russia are appropriate based on the reports of Russian hacking, Mr Tillerson declined to answer, saying he would want to see all available information first.
Pressed further on what decision he would make based on current, publicly available information, Mr Tillerson again refused to answer, saying he wanted to see all of the information.
Mr Tillerson just did a pretty tidy job of summing up his views on the Russia sanctions – and all sanctions as a matter of fact, writes the FT’s Courtney Weaver.
What he said is: “Sanctions are not a strategy. Sanctions are a tactic.”
He says he doesn’t want to be legally impose sanctions on Russia for its alleged role in the hacking attacks because he wants the card to be in his pocket.
“I’d like to have [sanctions] as a tactic,” Mr Tillerson said. “If it’s already played it’s not available to me.”
After asking a few follow up questions, Mr Rubio launched into the important role the US secretary of state plays in world affairs, possibly implying he felt Mr Tillerson’s answers on human right issues were weak.
The position you’ve been nominated for is the second most important position in this country, with all due respect to the vice president.
Referring back to their conversations those suffering from human rights abuses, Mr Rubio said:
“They look to the US, they look to us, and often to the secretary of state. When they see the US is not prepared to stand up and say, yes Vladimir Putin is a war criminal, Saudi Arabia violates human rights … it demoralises these people all over the world.”
Mr Rubio has been one of Mr Tillerson’s harshest critics today. Rounding out the day, Mr Rubio is criticising Mr Tillerson’s choice to refuse to answer many questions by claiming multiple times that he needed more information. Mr Rubio said: “In order to have moral clarity, we need clarity. We can’t achieve moral clarity with rhetorical ambiguity”.
Mr Rubio said:
You gave the need for a lot more information in order to comment on some of these… These were not obscure areas. I can tell you that, number one, the questions I asked did not require access to any sort of special information that we have. All of these sources were built on voluminous open-source reporting, rights groups, leaders sometimes themselves when it comes to the Philippines, the State Department, etc…
Yet today I’ve been unable to get you to acknowledge that the attacks on Aleppo were conducted by Russia and that, in fact, they are or would be considered under any standard human rights. Somehow you’re unaware about what’s happening in the Philippines. That you’re not prepared to label what’s happening in China or Saudi Arabia, a country that, by my understanding, you’re quite aware of. Women have no rights in that country, that’s well documented, and if you’ve visited, if anyone has, they would know.
Mr Rubio finished by saying billions of people throughout the world looked to the US for protection and as a beacon that stands for democracy in freedom. He said it hurts the United States when the US is seen as standing for “democracy and freedom, as long as it’s not being violated by someone that they need for something else. That can not be who we are in the 21st century. We need a secretary of state who will fight for these principles”.
And it is a wrap!
How has Mr Tillerson done in the confirmation hearing?
The FT’s Courtney Weaver weighs in:
Overall, most of the senators on the Foreign Relations Committee seem more satisfied than expected about Mr Tillerson’s views regarding the annexation of Crimea, Ukraine, Cuba and the manner in which he has distanced himself from some of Mr Trump’s more controversial comments.
Some still appear to be undecided on Mr Tillerson’s candidacy, however. In his closing remarks just now, Mr Rubio stated that he had no doubt that Mr Tillerson was a man of good character, who was stepping up to the job because of patriotic duty – rather than professional ambition. But he expresses deep concern about Mr Tillerson’s statements regarding Russia’s actions in Syria; the actions of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines; and the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, especially the fact that he was unable to classify these situations as human rights abuses.
Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Jersey, meanwhile,expressed concern that Mr Tillerson was at times unable to say what the administration’s policies on certain issues would be – either because he was not informed enough on those issues – or because he and Trump had not discussed them. Moreover, she noted, many of Mr Tillerson’s statements and views were “undercut by statements of the president-elect”.
“What I want to know is what values will prevail?” she asked.
Outside the hearing, Mr Rubio avoided telling the press whether he will support Mr Tillerson for secretary of state. He says he’s “prepared to do what’s right”, suggesting he may vote against his nomination.
Mr Tillerson will need Mr Rubio’s vote, as Democrats try to block his appointment.
This post originally appeared on Financial Times