WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia was as much under scrutiny as Rex Tillerson during the former Exxon Mobil CEO’s confirmation hearing to be secretary of state Wednesday.
Republicans as well as Democrats grilled Tillerson, who developed a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin through his multinational oil company leadership, on how he would approach Russia should he be confirmed and probed for areas of disagreement with the president-elect. Tillerson did appear to paint Russia as a greater threat than Trump has, calling it a “danger” in his testimony, but he came under fire for insufficient hawkishness from both sides of the aisle.
The bumpy hearing, before the Foreign Relations Committee, underscored the uncertain path ahead for Tillerson’s confirmation.
“Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?” asked Florida Republican Marco Rubio, who ran against Trump for the GOP nomination last year, in an early and testy exchange.
“I would not use that term,” Tillerson replied.
Rubio pressed forward, detailing Putin’s directing the Russian military to bomb civilian targets in the Syrian city of Aleppo. When Tillerson replied he would need to review classified information before reaching a conclusion on such serious charges, Rubio said “it should not be hard to say that Vladimir Putin’s military conducted war crimes in Aleppo.” He declared it “discouraging” that Tillerson was unable to do so.
Rubio continued to hammer Tillerson in his second round of questions, focused on the human rights records of China and Saudi Arabia.
Secretary of State John Kerry has called for Russia and Syria to be investigated for war crimes, but the Obama administration has not gone so far as to declare Putin a war criminal.
Several Republican senators harbor doubts about Tillerson’s credentials to be the nation’s top diplomat. These foreign policy hawks have voiced concern about his lack of diplomatic or political experience and his ties to Russia and Putin, who bestowed Tillerson with the Order of Friendship in 2013.
Rubio’s cold treatment of Tillerson was particularly significant because just one Republican “no” vote on the Foreign Relations Committee, which is charged with vetting the secretary of state candidate, could imperil his nomination. Republicans hold just a one-seat advantage on the panel, and a tie vote typically, but not always, spells the end of a nomination. GOP leaders could bring Tillerson’s nomination to the Senate floor, but even there Tillerson could face trouble if just a handful of Republicans oppose him.
Adding to the drama over Russia was the fact that Tillerson’s appearance came as bipartisan concerns about Trump’s friendly approach to Russia soared to frenzied levels. News broke late Tuesday that US intelligence agencies were investigating allegations about the president-elect’s ties with Russia and possible Russian efforts to develop compromising information about Trump.
The allegations, contained in a 35-page opposition research dossier, also indicate that Trump allies met with Russian officials during the campaign to discuss, among other things, the hack of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and the Democratic National Committee.
Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy brought up the unconfirmed dossier during the hearing, saying “we all pray it isn’t true,” before asking Tillerson if he’d been briefed on the document, and if he thinks law enforcement agencies should work to confirm its contents.
“I would leave that to those agencies to determine,” Tillerson said.
Tillerson sought to allay any concerns, saying the United States under Trump needs to be “cleareyed” in handling its relationship with Russia.
“Russia today poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests,” he said in his opening statement, blaming “an absence of American leadership” on the part of the Obama administration for allowing the threats to persist.
“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,” he said.
He got a boost from some friendly GOP senators on the panel, including its chairman, Bob Corker of Tennessee, who repeatedly offered Tillerson opportunities to clean up his answers when things got rocky.
“My sense is that you are going to rise to the occasion, that you are going to demonstrate that you are, in fact, an inspired choice, that you’re going to be able to take the years of accomplishment in relationships and transfer that and translate it into a foreign policy that benefits US national interests,” Corker said to Tillerson at the start of the hearing. Corker was reportedly in the running at one point for secretary of state.
While Russia dominated, Tillerson was pressed on plenty of other topics: Cuba, programs to boost women in developing countries, North Korea’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons, how he would interact with executives of his former employer.
Democrats pushed him on his views on climate change. Tillerson said he approaches the issue as an engineer of 20 years, which has led him to conclude that “the risk of climate change does exist. . . . The consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken.”
But he declined to weigh in on what that action should look like, saying
Still, his statements marked another departure from Trump, who has called global warming a hoax and who has nominated a global warming skeptic to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
Tillerson suggested the United States should stay in the Paris climate agreement. “We’re better served by being at that table than leaving that table,” he said. Trump has promised to withdraw from the deal.
It was the second day in a row that a Trump nominee put space between himself and the president-elect.
On Tuesday, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama took different positions from Trump on waterboarding — Sessions declared it illegal, while Trump has pledged to bring it back — and banning Muslims from entering the United States.
Pressed on a ban on Muslims Wednesday by Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, Tillerson said he would not support a “blanket-type” ban on any particular group of people.
In December 2015, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the country for a period of time, a statement that is still on his website. Trump later revised the plan to involve an ideological screening test and a ban on immigrants from certain countries with a history of terror activity.
“But clearly we have serious challenges to be able to vet people coming into the country, and particularly under the current circumstances because of the instability in the part of the world it is occurring,” Tillerson added. “I don’t think we can just close our eyes.”
But he ducked Shaheen’s next question: Would he support a national registry of Muslims, which Trump has indicated he might pursue. “I would need to have a lot more information around how such an approach would even be constructed,” he said. On Tuesday, Sessions said he would not support such a registry.
Corker observed that Tillerson’s views, when they differ from the president’s, wouldn’t necessarily prevail, and that he would need to carry out the administration’s positions to be successful.