Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson sought Wednesday to assuage bipartisan concerns about his ties to Russia, testifying at his confirmation hearing he thinks Moscow poses a “danger” and blasting the country’s annexation of Crimea — though he refused to go so far as to call Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” during a contentious back-and-forth with Sen. Marco Rubio.
During the tense exchange at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rubio persistently questioned Tillerson in an attempt to get him to call Putin a war criminal for Russian military intervention in Syria. Tillerson refused to do so.
“I find it discouraging your ability to cite that, which I think is globally accepted,” Rubio, R-Fla., said.
Tillerson also wouldn’t bite when Rubio, a former opponent of President-elect Donald Trump during the Republican presidential primary, tried to get Tillerson to say Putin murdered political foes.
Still, Tillerson took a noticeably harder line toward Putin and Russia than Trump has done during the transition period and prior to it.
“We must also be clear-eyed about our relationship with Russia,” Tillerson said. “Russia today poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests … our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia.”
Tillerson called Russia an “unfriendly adversary” during later questioning, stopping short of saying the nation was an enemy of the U.S.
Russia took center-stage during the early portion of the hearing for Tillerson, the ExxonMobil CEO vying to be confirmed as the nation’s top diplomat. Senators grilled Tillerson amid swirling questions about alleged meddling in U.S. politics by the Kremlin and Tillerson’s own business ties to Russia.
“My love of country and my patriotism is going to dictate that I serve no one’s interests but that of the American people,” Tillerson said.
Tillerson said that Russia had no legal claim to Crimea — “that was a taking of territory that was not theirs” — and said the Obama administration should have provided Ukraine with help defending its borders.
“The absence of a very firm, forceful response to the taking of Crimea was judged by leadership in Russia as a weak response,” Tillerson said.
While Russia dominated the early proceedings, Tillerson also addressed other areas.
Tillerson took aim at China’s “illegal” building of man-made islands in the South China Sea and radical Islam, which he said posed “a grave risk to the stability of nations and the well-being of their citizens.”
On Syria, Tillerson said the U.S. currently had too many competing goals and needed to focus on defeating ISIS before a discussion could occur about who should lead the country. The Obama administration’s dual priorities of ousting President Bashar al-Assad and eradicating ISIS were sometimes at odds with each other, Tillerson said.
Tillerson called ISIS an imminent threat but named cyber intrusions as the “greatest and most complex threat” facing the U.S.
He also said the American government had “stumbled” under the Obama administration.
“If we do not lead, we risk plunging the world deeper into confusion and danger,” Tillerson said.
One moment of levity occurred when Sen. Tim Kaine asked Tillerson about ExxonMobile’s climate change policies. Tillerson told Kaine that Kaine would need to ask current executives, to which Kaine asked if Tillerson lacked “the knowledge to answer my question or are you refusing to answer my question?”
“A little of both,” Tillerson said to laughs.
On the topic of Trump’s frequent use of Twitter, Tillerson said he wouldn’t “tell the boss how to communicate with the American people. That’s gonna be his choice.”
Tillerson testified a day after a contentious Senate session involving Attorney General nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions. The audience at Tillerson’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing again appeared to be filled with protesters, including Code Pink activists who were dressed in Statue of Liberty garb, a man outfitted in a suit made of money and some protesters suited up in T-Rex costumes – a play on Tillerson’s name.
One early protester was ejected after she screamed “I reject you!” at Tillerson.