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Tillerson denies lobbying against Russia sanctions as ExxonMobil chief

Rex Tillerson locked horns with senior Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over whether he and ExxonMobil had lobbied Congress and the Obama administration over economic sanctions.

Tillerson said he never lobbied on the issue and fumbled over whether ExxonMobil — where he is the former CEO — ever had. At one point he said that to the best of his memory, ExxonMobil had not done that.

Democrats on the committee produced lobbying records that show ExxonMobil said it was lobbying over various economic sanctions measures, including tough sanctions on Iran back in 2010 and more recently over sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) cited 14 such documents.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) held up four lobbying reports.

“In essence, Exxon became the in-house lobbyist for Russia against these sanctions,” Menendez said.

“I haven’t seen the form in your hands,” said Tillerson, who asked whether the forms showed Exxon lobbying for or against sanctions.  Menendez asked whether Tillerson could imagine the company actually lobbying in favor of sanctions.  Tillerson replied “I don’t know, senator, it would depend on the circumstances.”

The reports show that ExxonMobil’s Washington office was engaged in lobbying over sanctions. But Tillerson, in response to further questions from Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oreg), said  “ExxonMobil did not lobby against sanctions but [we] were engaged in how sanctions would be constructed.”

In a separate line of questioning with Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), Tillerson said that in response to sanctions over Iran, Exxon Mobil had tried to make sure U.S. and European Union sanctions on Iran were aligned. The European sanctions grandfathered in some existing European ventures in Iran whereas the U.S. sanctions were stricter. Tillerson said he spoke to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew about the issue.

But Democrats cited ExxonMobil’s membership in USA Engage, an advocacy group created in 2007 to lobby against sanctions. USA Engage lobbied for years against the imposition of tough sanctions on Iran, sanctions now credited with bringing Iran to the bargaining table over measures restricting its nuclear program.

“Let’s be clear,” ExxonMobil said on Twitter during the afternoon. “We engage with lawmakers to discuss sanction impacts, not whether or not sanctions should be imposed.”

In any case, what would this mean going forward? Tillerson said “sanctions are a powerful tool. Let’s design them well, let’s target them well and then, let’s enforce them fully.”

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