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‘Why is Tillerson friends with Putin?’ Activists reflect on hearing uproar

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Protesters who were arrested for disrupting the Senate hearing on former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s nomination for secretary of state Wednesday said they have no regrets about the demonstrations.

During the hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the protesters held up signs reading “RejectRexx” (a pun on his name and Exxon) and shouted their opposition to appointing a longtime oilman with deep ties to Russia as the country’s top diplomat.

James Burch, 31, of San Francisco, stood up and shouted, “Senators, your duty is clear. You must reject Rex Tillerson!”

As Capitol police escorted Burch from the hearing room, he said, “The people do not want an oilman as secretary of state.”

He said he was taken to a quiet vestibule, where he was searched and then booked on misdemeanor charges at a Capitol Police station.

“I think I got my message across. That message was for everybody to stand up and fight for what they believe in,” Burch told Yahoo News Thursday. “With respect to Tillerson, I think he poses a grave threat to our environment, and I felt the need to stand up and let the senators on the committee know that I felt that way.”

Activist James Burch of San Francisco, California, holds up a protest sign reading
Activist James Burch of San Francisco, California, holds up a “Reject Rexx” protest sign. (Photo: Ken Cedeno/Greenpeace)

Many Americans from both parties have expressed concern about the relationship Tillerson cultivated with Moscow as chief executive of ExxonMobil. Russian President Vladimir Putin personally awarded him the Order of Friendship, one of the most prestigious honors Russia gives to foreign citizens, in 2013. The following year, Tillerson opposed economic sanctions against Russia after its military invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. ExxonMobil had several lucrative business deals with Russia —including plans to drill in the Arctic — underway at the time.

“If you have Tillerson pursuing oil interests and Russia pursuing oil interests, it seems like there’s little else that would be considered between the two of them,” Burch said.

Beth Henry, 62, of Charlotte, N.C., said she disrupted the hearing because she is worried about the future of the planet for her three children and two grandchildren.

“Why is Rex Tillerson friends with Putin?” she recalled shouting during the hearing. “Because they both want to drill and burn the Arctic. That would ruin the climate and destroy the future for our children and grandchildren. Please don’t put Exxon in charge of the State Department.”

Henry said she yelled loudly enough that she thinks the senators heard her message. She was also heartened that many of senators’ questions addressed the issues she tried to raise, especially questions about Tillerson’s relationship with Putin and its potential effect on climate change.

Like Burch, Henry was charged with a misdemeanor and released.

Activist Beth Henry of Charlotte, N.C., continues to protest as she is escorted from the confirmation hearing. (Photo: Pat Ryan/Greenpeace)
Activist Beth Henry of Charlotte, N.C., continues to protest as she is escorted from the confirmation hearing. (Photo: Pat Ryan/Greenpeace)

She told Yahoo News that she doesn’t mind looking foolish if there’s hope of conveying the urgency and magnitude of the climate threat, especially to future generations.

“Many children worldwide are already being harmed,” Henry said. “Part of what I want to do as a 62-year-old grandmother is try to get that message heard, and hopefully make other folks know that they can summon up the will to stand up.”

In a phone interview with Yahoo News, Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer for international energy companies who has also represented Russian oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, said Americans shouldn’t be concerned about the friendly signals Trump has been sending to Putin.

Amsterdam, who has been personally detained and expelled from Russia, said he has “absolutely no fondness” for Putin, believes he’s the leader of a “Mafia state,” and denounces his interference with the U.S. election.

Still, he thinks concerns about Trump or Tillerson being in Putin’s pocket are without merit. He said that Tillerson is an “extraordinarily competent guy,” and he sees no inherent conflict between his career at ExxonMobil and his appointment as chief U.S. diplomat.

“Tillerson fits the Trump transactional mode,” he said. “He’s not going to be someone for whom American principles are going to be as important as many of us would like. But do I see an inherent conflict? No. Trump has picked a very savvy, transactional guy at a very dangerous time in the world.”

Robert Amsterdam is an international attorney who represents energy companies. (Photo: Julie Carr Smyth/AP)
Robert Amsterdam is an international attorney who represents energy companies. (Photo: Julie Carr Smyth/AP)

Amsterdam suggested that acting as if Moscow single-handedly skewed the election is essentially “hacking into Russian politics” by making Putin look far more successful than he deserves to.

He argued that Trump is playing a “realistic card” with the Russians, and that he is not a Putin sycophant. He suggested that Trump probably fears that acknowledging Russia’s interference in the U.S. election would delegitimize his election victory.

“This does not show a slavish devotion to Russia,” Amsterdam said.

Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, released a statement Wednesday calling upon the Senate Judiciary Committee to reject Tillerson’s nomination.

“Rex Tillerson has been knee-deep in the oil and gas industry for more than four decades, working for Exxon, which not only deliberately concealed its knowledge of climate change for decades, but pushed climate science denial while being responsible for one of the costliest environmental disasters in history,” he said, referring to the 1989 oil spill from the tanker Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound, Alaska.

“Tillerson can’t be trusted to protect the health and interests of all Americans when he has demonstrated over and over again he is more invested in Exxon’s massive profits and the dirtiest fuels known to humanity.”

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