Secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson was put on the defensive over his views on Russia during his Wednesday confirmation hearings, with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and others pushing him hard on his past connections and current views of the country.
Tillerson, who as Exxon-Mobil CEO oversaw a major partnership with the Russian government-owned oil company and was awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin, said the U.S. must be “clear-eyed” about Russia and its intent while working together where national interests overlap during his opening statement.
But he repeatedly refused to call Putin a “war criminal,” in spite of Rubio’s urging.
“You are still not prepared to say that Vladimir Putin and his military have violated the rules of war and committed war crimes in Aleppo?” Rubio asked, after Tillerson said he “wouldn’t use that term” to describe Putin.
“None of this is classified, Mr. Tillerson. These people are dead,” he said, pushing back on Tillerson’s saying he wasn’t ready to weigh in on whether Russia had committed war crimes without classified briefings. “There is so much information out there. It should not be hard to say that Vladimir Putin’s military has committed war crimes in Aleppo. I find it discouraging, your inability to site that.”
The Florida senator and Russia hardliner is one of a handful of Republicans who could make or break Tillerson’s confirmation.
Tillerson shakes hands with Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) prior to the start of his confirmation hearing Wednesday.
In his opening statement, Tillerson sought to reassure lawmakers about his Russian views.
“Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia,” he said. “Where cooperation with Russia based on common interests is possible, such as reducing the global threat of terrorism, we ought to explore these options. Where important differences remain, we should be steadfast in defending the interests of America and her allies. Russia must know that we will be accountable to our commitments and those of our allies, and that Russia must be held to account for its actions.”
Those words weren’t enough for some senators, who voiced concerns about his past work in Russia and ties to its leaders and raised Tuesday’s report that President-elect Donald Trump had been briefed by intelligence officials on unverified claims that Russia had tried to compromise him with incriminating evidence.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said he was “disappointed” that Tillerson didn’t mention anything about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election during his prepared opening remarks.
“We have deep concerns about your relationship with Putin,” Cardin said, warning that “Russia may well have information about Mr. Trump and they may use that to compromise the presidency.”
Activists rally against former Tillerson at a gas station near the Capitol on Wednesday.
(Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)
Tillerson had two well-respected bipartisan voices vouch for him as he took the stage.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who served under President Obama and President George W. Bush, called Tillerson “superbly qualified” for the top government position.
Gates, who has known Tillerson for years as fellow Boy Scouts of America board members, said Tillerson was “the right person at the right time” to stand up to Russia.
“I know that he will lead the Department of State with skill and respect for the professionals,” he said.
Former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), a nuclear nonproliferation expert, argued that Tillerson’s experience with Russia and decades at ExxonMobil “are both assets, not liabilities.”
“I am confident that he is well prepared to do what is essential for the security of our nation, to hold firm and tough,” he said.