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Congressional Critics Seek 'Unequivocal No' on Exxon Sanctions Waiver Request

WASHINGTON -- Congressional critics are urging the Trump administration to hold the line on a request from ExxonMobil to waive sanctions so the oil giant can proceed working with state-owned Russian company Rosneft.

The Wall Street Journal first reported this week that Exxon sought the waiver from the Treasury Department to get moving again on a joint venture first signed in 2011, specifically drilling in the Black Sea.

Rex Tillerson, now the secretary of State, oversaw the Rosneft deal as CEO of ExxonMobil.

"Russia's activities in Ukraine and Syria have clearly shown that they cannot be trusted to be responsible or humane players on the international stage,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said Thursday in a statement. “The United States and Europe imposed sanctions on Russia for violating the international order, and Vladimir Putin has taken no steps that would merit the removal of any sanctions."

"I hope that American companies and the Trump administration will keep these broader implications in mind as they consider any waiver requests, regardless of Exxon’s longstanding record of lobbying against these sanctions," he said.

Menendez added that "sanctions are one of the most important diplomatic tools we have to discourage countries from violating international law by cutting off critical resources and access to international markets," but "sanctions are only effective if they are rigorously enforced, and exempting major business transactions fundamentally undermines their ability to act as a deterrent.”

During Tillerson's January confirmation hearing, the senator questioned the CEO about Exxon's lobbying against Russia sanctions. Tillerson said "Exxon never directly lobbied against sanctions -- not to my knowledge."

"I think it's important to acknowledge that when sanctions are imposed, they by their design are going to harm American business," Tillerson testified then, under questioning from Menendez. "That's the idea, it's to disrupt America's business engagement in whatever country's being targeted for sanctions."

ExxonMobil has not commented on the report. Tillerson received the Order of Friendship award from Russia's Vladimir Putin in 2013 after the Rosneft deal moved forward.

The State Department would be involved in any Treasury decision to grant a sanctions waiver. Tillerson said during his confirmation hearing that "obviously there's a statutory recusal period, which I will adhere to, on any matters that might come before the State Department that deal directly and specifically with ExxonMobil."

"Beyond that though, in terms of broader issues dealing with the fact that it might involve the oil and natural gas industry itself, the scope of that is such that I would not expect to have to recuse myself," Tillerson added. "In any instance where there is any question, or even the appearance, I would expect to seek the guidance of counsel from the Office of Ethics in the State Department, and will follow their guidance as to whether it's an issue that I should recuse myself from."