U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio did not hold back Wednesday in his first chance to publicly question Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to become secretary of state, over his views — and, by extension, Trump’s views — on Russia.
How Rubio would approach Tillerson’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had been one of the biggest political questions heading into Wednesday, given that Rubio had backed Trump for president in spite of Trump’s support for friendlier relations with Russia. Rubio, a national-security hawk, has repeatedly called Russia a threat and backs sanctions against the country for cyber intrusions into the U.S.
A stern-faced Rubio, making the most of his time as his questions were carried live on cable news, also pressed the longtime Exxon Mobil chief on the incoming president’s approach to Cuba, which has lacked specificity. Tillerson committed to urging Trump to veto any potential legislation trying to lift the U.S. trade embargo or allow unfettered travel by Americans to the island, though Tillerson said any changes to President Barack Obama’s Cuba reengagement policy would come only after a top-to-bottom Trump administration review.
On Russia, Rubio tried to get Tillerson to agree to the legislation he and nine other senators proposed Tuesday to impose sanctions on specific Russia actors involved in cyber attacks against the U.S. But Tillerson would not bite, saying he’s not ready to unconditionally support such legislation because he wants sanctions available to him as a “tactic.”
Then, Rubio, acting like a prosecutor, escalated his questioning.
“Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?” Rubio asked.
“I would not use that term,” Tillerson responded.
Rubio, an attorney by training, cited Russian targeting of civilians in Aleppo, Syria, and bombings in Chechnya. Tillerson said he’d need more information to assign direct blame to the Russian president. Rubio cut him off.
“Mr. Tillerson, what’s happened in Aleppo is in the public domain,” he said. “There is so much information out there about what’s happened in Aleppo.... It should not be hard to say that Vladimir Putin’s military has conducted war crimes in Aleppo.”
He called Tillerson’s “inability” to call Russia’s actions in Syria a war crime “discouraging.”
Rubio then mentioned the Russian political dissidents and journalists who have died “under suspicious circumstances.”
“Do you believe that Vladimir Putin and his cronies are responsible for ordering the murder of countless dissident journalists and political opponents?” he asked.
Tillerson: “I do not have sufficient information to make that claim.” To advise future President Trump, he added, it’s important “that I deal with facts.”
“None of this is classified, Mr. Tillerson,” Rubio shot back. “These people are dead.”
Said Tillerson: “I’m not disputing these people are dead.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee then interjected, asking Tillerson whether, if he had classified information, he would be willing to call Putin a war criminal.
“Yes,” Tillerson responded.
Earlier, Tillerson had conceded to Rubio that it was a “fair assumption” that Putin was involved in Russian meddling with the election. Tillerson later told U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, that he hasn’t talked to Trump about Russia, something Menendez, a frequent Rubio ally, called “amazing.”
“We are not likely to ever be friends” with Russia, Tillerson added, though he said the U.S. needs “to move Russia from being an adversary always to being a partner sometimes.”
Tillerson denied that Exxon lobbied against U.S. sanctions against Russia, despite a Politico report that the company acted on Capitol Hill last month to successfully scuttle such legislation. Shown Exxon’s lobbying reports at the hearing, Tillerson insisted they were “inaccurate.”
At a New York news conference held in New York at the same time as Tillerson’s hearing, Trump acknowledged for the first time that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee during the election.
“I think it was Russia,” Trump said, though he also said the Democratic Party could have better protected itself against cyber attacks. Trump later added, “You know what — it could have been others.”
Trump did not get any questions on Cuba. But Tillerson, clearly aware that the Foreign Relations Committee members include two Cuban Americans — Rubio and Menendez — said in his opening statement that Cuba has not done enough to protect human rights since reestablishing diplomatic relations with the U.S.
“We have not held them accountable for their conduct,” Tillerson said. “Their leaders received much, while their people received little. That serves neither the interest of Cubans or Americans.”
Asked by Menendez if he agreed that Cuba should turn over fugitives such as Joanne Chesimard, convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper, Tillerson answered with an unequivocal, “I do, senator.”
It wasn’t until Rubio, who wouldn’t say if he’ll vote to confirm Tillerson, peppered the nominee with questions about China, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia, that Tillerson took a step back and tried to address Rubio’s broader point about their potential differences when it comes to foreign policy.
“There seems to be some misunderstanding, that we view the world through a different lens,” Tillerson said. “I share all the same values that you share.”
“But I’m also clear-eyed and realistic,” he added, “about dealing in...centuries-long cultural differences.”
The next time Rubio took the microphone, he explained he grilled Tillerson the way he did not because he questions Tillerson’s character or patriotism, but because he’s been nominated to “the second-most important position in the U.S. government, with all due respect to the vice president.”
“It demoralizes these people all over the world,” Rubio said, referring to the oppressed, if they think “America cares about democracy and freedom as long as it isn’t being violated for something else.”
“That’s why I asked those questions,” Rubio said. “I believe it’s important for the future of the world.”
McClatchy correspondent Alex Daugherty contributed to this report from Washington.