Wednesday’s Senate confirmation hearing for Donald Trump’s pick to be the next secretary of state, former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, has mostly featured senators from both parties grilling Tillerson about Russia. This makes sense, given Tillerson’s extensive business history in the country as well as recent unconfirmed allegations about Trump and Russia.
One major theme was Exxon Mobil’s stance on sanctions the Obama administration has imposed on Russia, which Tillerson has criticized publicly. He was asked, repeatedly, about Exxon’s lobbying activities against sanctions.
“I have never lobbied against sanctions,” Tillerson said. “To my knowledge, Exxon never directly lobbied against sanctions.”
This seems hard to believe. Indeed, after the second line, Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chair of the committee, interjected: "I think you called me at the time [Russia sanctions were being debated]," he said. The public record backs him up: There is abundant and clear evidence that Exxon did lobby on sanctions under Tillerson’s leadership.
Corker later gave Tillerson a chance to finesse his response, which Tillerson took — arguing that the company never opposed sanctions per se, but merely engaged with Congress to understand how Exxon’s business would be affected. “Exxon Mobil participated in understanding how the sanctions are going to be constructed,” he said.
This is hard to disprove — but very, very hard to believe, as Sen. Chris Murphy said during the hearing.
“In your mind, calling a United States senator to express your belief that sanctions are not effective is not lobbying,” Murphy said. “In my view, that is a distinction without a difference.”
Exxon clearly lobbied about sanctions, and Tillerson clearly knew
OpenSecrets, an influence-tracking organization, records Exxon Mobil as having lobbied repeatedly on the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014, the bill imposing sanctions on Russia’s oil sector after its 2014 invasion of Ukraine. These activities continued since then, including, contra Tillerson, direct lobbying against new sanctions bills.
“ExxonMobil successfully lobbied against a bill that would have made it harder for the next president to lift sanctions against Russia, clearing the way for the oil giant to restart a program worth billions of dollars if Donald Trump eases those restrictions as president,” Politico reported last month.
These are not isolated incidents. Byron Tau, a Wall Street Journal reporter who has covered lobbying extensively, notes 14 separate instances of Exxon lobbying against sanctions between 2006 (when Tillerson took over the company) and 2014. Tau tweeted links to several lobbying disclosure forms showing that Exxon did, in fact, lobby on sanctions related to Russia and Iran.
“Exxon lobbied on sanctions and disclosed that activity in public reports. Period,” Tau wrote.
Tillerson, as the company’s CEO, had to know about this. Indeed, he bragged in June 2014 — when the Ukraine Freedom Support Act was going through Congress — that his company wasn’t just trying to gather information from elected officials, but was actively informing lawmakers of their views. “Our views are being heard at the highest levels,” he said, per the New York Times.
And those views were, quite clearly, critical. Under Tillerson, Exxon had struck about 10 deals with Putin’s government to explore Russian oil, valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. The company stood to lose a lot as a result of the new sanctions, and so Tillerson publicly criticized them.
“We do not support sanctions, generally, because we don’t find them to be effective unless they are very well implemented comprehensively,” he said in May 2014.
So while we will need more reporting to show that Tillerson lied, conclusively, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that he did.