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Secretary of State Nominee Rex Tillerson to Face Tough Questions at Senate Hearing

Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson will be grilled Wednesday, as members of both parties dissect President-elect Trump's foreign policy views.
Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin presents ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson with a Russian medal at an award ceremony
In this photo taken Thursday, June 21, 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin presents ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson with a Russian medal at an award ceremony of heads and employees of energy companies at the St. Petersburg economic forum in St. Petersburg, Russia. An aide to President Vladimir Putin praised United States President-elect Donald Trump?EUR(TM)s choice of Rex Tillerson to lead the State Department and says that the businessman is well regarded by many Russian officials.Mikhail Klimentyev / Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson will face a bipartisan grilling Wednesday, with members of both parties expected to use his confirmation hearing as an opportunity to dissect President-elect Donald Trump’s foreign policy views.

He’ll likely face many of the same questions over his coziness with Russia that have dogged Trump. And on the same day Trump holds a press conference during which he’s said he’ll unveil his plans to divest from his business interests, Tillerson will have to offer similar reassurances to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

With almost $500 million in assets, at least $200 million of which are in Exxon-related holdings that could be affected by the decisions he makes as Secretary of State, Tillerson’s wealth will be a major point of contention for Democratic members of the committee.

Tillerson is expected to eventually gain approval from the Senate and take office as Secretary of State. While none of Tillerson’s Republican critics have said they were fully satisfied by their one-on-one meetings with the nominee, even those holdouts seem to be warming up to him.

Sen. John McCain — who last week joked he’d support Tillerson “when pigs fly” — said in a more recent interview with NBC News’ Chuck Todd that he’d need a “compelling reason” to oppose one of Trump’s nominees.

“Every president should have the benefit of the doubt as to their nominees. So there has to be a compelling reason not to,” he said.

McCain added, however, “I still have some concerns and I have got some more questions for Mr. Tillerson.” McCain, who is not a member of the committee that oversees Tillerson’s nomination hearings, is certain to be watching for his stance on Russian sanctions, after joining nine other senators from both parties in introducing a bill Tuesday imposing stiff new sanctions in retaliation for Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election and their military campaigns in Ukraine and Syria.

Tillerson’s views on Russian involvement in the U.S. election remain unclear, and he’ll be pressed on any discrepancies with the president-elect, who refused to acknowledge Russia’s role even after receiving a classified intelligence briefing on the subject last Friday.

Both Democrats and Republicans have raised questions over Tillerson’s close personal and business ties to Russian leaders. He received the Kremlin’s Order of Friendship from Russian President Vladimir Putin himself in 2013, the product of a decades-old relationship with the Russians that resulted in oil deals worth billions. In 2014 Tillerson opposed U.S. sanctions in retaliation for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which reportedly cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted his displeasure with Trump’s pick of Tillerson when it was first announced.

Some Democrats privately admit they don’t hope to torpedo his nomination — or even prevent it from passing out of committee. They see the hearing, instead, as an opportunity shine a spotlight on Trump’s departure from foreign policy orthodoxy and raise questions about Tillerson’s ability to implement it.

The Democratic members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will likely focus on “how dangerous Trump’s foreign policy seems to be and whether Tillerson is up to the job of helping shape that and carry it out — with only the American people in mind,” a Senate Democratic aide told NBC News.

And the hearing will be the first test case of a broader argument Democrats plan to make against many of Trump’s nominees questioning whether a cabinet of business leaders can put the American people before businesses profits.

“It’s very clear he’s been successful as a businessman who can put shareholders’ interests first, but does that translate to being the nation’s top diplomat, putting the interests of the American people first?” the aide told NBC News.

They say ExxonMobil’s business practices under Tillerson’s watch need to be scrutinized. And they plan to pin him down on how he’ll keep his focus on U.S. Diplomatic interests, after decades spent focused on his company’s financial interests.

“My number one question to him was about how he intends to make that transition, how clearly he sees the difference” between Exxon Mobil’s economic interests and the country's, Coons told reporters last week, after meeting with the nominee. “I am as concerned, if not more concerned, about what the president-elect’s views are going to be — the centrality of NATO to our security, the importance of pushing back on Putin and Russia,” he added.