A group of veterans staging a protest vigil in Sen. John McCain's office against Rex Tillerson on Jan. 19, 2017.

A group of veterans staging a protest vigil in Sen. John McCain's office against Rex Tillerson on Jan. 19, 2017. (Travis J. Tritten/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINTON – A group of veterans was arrested Thursday in Sen. John McCain’s office during a protest over secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson’s oil ties.

The seven veterans held a vigil in the senator’s office for several hours and demanded to talk with the Arizona Republican, who was not available according to his staff. Eventually, Capitol police handcuffed and arrested them when the group refused to leave.

The veterans, who had ties to the environmental group Greenpeace and the group Iraq Veterans Against the War, told Stars and Stripes that they hoped to sway McCain’s upcoming confirmation vote. They cited a range of concerns over President-elect Donald Trump’s pick, saying Tillerson put corporate profits above American interests, took advantage of instability abroad and helped perpetuate climate change.

“We believe Rex Tillerson is the absolute wrong person for secretary of state,” said New Mexico resident Jonathan Engle, a former sergeant 1st class with the Green Berets who was arrested Thursday. “He has shown no loyalty to the United States as CEO of ExxonMobil and has actually subverted U.S. foreign policy in places such as Iraq in 2011.”

Tillerson, who stepped down from the company after being chosen by Trump last month, has drawn criticism for going around the Iraq government against the wishes of Washington and cutting a recent oil deal with autonomous Iraqi Kurds.

Matt Howard, a co-director of the group Iraq Veterans Against the War who also was arrested in McCain’s office, said Tillerson’s history of profiting from instability at Exxon could cause more problems around the world if he leads the State Department.

“I don’t wish that on anybody and I think it’s very important not just from an environmental standpoint but from a national security standpoint that somebody like Rex Tillerson should not be appointed to the highest diplomatic post in this country,” said Howard, a former Marine corporal who served in the Iraq war.

McCain and other lawmakers have questioned Tillerson’s close ties with Russia, where Exxon has done significant business. Tillerson has a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin that dates back to the late 1990s and received a rare friendship award from Putin in 2013.

McCain, who has called Putin a butcher, told Stars and Stripes on Wednesday that he was still on the fence about supporting the oil executive’s nomination for secretary of state. Tillerson had a confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that was at times rocky.

The veterans said they hoped to speak with McCain and convince him to oppose the nomination and attempt to influence other senators.

McCain’s office said staff allowed the group of veterans to exercise its right to protest for several hours but the veterans refused to leave when staff tried to close for the day and Capitol police followed protocol.

“Sen. McCain appreciates the professionalism of the U.S. Capitol Police and all that they do to protect senators, staff and visitors to the U.S. Capitol,” a McCain spokeswoman wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes. Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

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