Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state, former Exxon Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson, adopted a tough new line on Russia during his Washington, D.C., confirmation hearing, calling the country a “danger” to the United States.
He also said he would have recommended a muscular response to Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region. Both assertions appeared to contradict the views of the president-elect, who has repeatedly spoken of improving U.S.-Russian ties.
Tillerson, a friend of the Kremlin and foe of sanctions in his corporate life, said last week’s intelligence report that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election was troubling and that it was a “fair assumption” Russian President Vladimir Putin would have personally ordered the intervention.
He wouldn’t call Putin a “war criminal” for Russian military actions in Syria, but said he’d consider such a designation if he saw evidence.
Hasn’t discussed Russia policy with Trump
Faced with pointed questions from Democratic and Republican senators about his ties with Russia and relationship with Putin, who awarded him the Order of Friendship in 2014, Tillerson sought to allay fears that either he or Trump would go easy on Moscow. But in a surprising revelation, he conceded that he hadn’t yet discussed details with Trump about his ideas for a Russia policy.
On Russia’s Crimea actions, he said: “That was a taking of territory that was not theirs.” He said he had been “caught by surprise” by the step, while criticizing the Obama administration’s response through sanctions on Russia, which ended up costing Exxon hundreds of millions of dollars.
Going beyond Obama’s approach, however, Tillerson said he would have responded to Russia’s actions against Ukraine by urging Kiev to send all available military units to its Russian border. He would have recommended U.S. and allied support to Ukraine, through defensive weapons and air surveillance, to send a message to Moscow.
Tillerson warns on sanctions
“That is the type of response that Russia expects,” he said in a response to questions from Sen. Marco Rubio, who offered Tillerson perhaps the toughest Republican questioning. “If Russia acts with force … they require a proportional show of force to indicate to Russia that there will be no more taking of territory.”
Economic sanctions, which Tillerson had questioned as chief of Exxon, “are a powerful tool and they are an important tool in terms of deterring additional action,” the oil man said. However, he said they could also send a “weak” message unless carefully crafted and applied on an international basis.
As chief of Exxon, Tillerson opposed penalties on Russia championed by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Addressing some of Congress’s most experienced architects of U.S. sanctions, the nominee declared that neither he nor Exxon to his knowledge had lobbied against such forms of economic pressure previously. But the company did lobby to try to influence sanctions legislation on Russia two years ago, congressional records and data from the Center for Responsive Politics show, and Tillerson made numerous White House visits, to no avail.
Given a second chance on the subject, Tillerson sought to clarify his answer by saying his opposition came after sanctions were imposed and that he expressed security-related concerns.
Unlike Trump, who has played down the intelligence community’s allegations of Russian malfeasance in the presidential campaign, Tillerson said he had no reason to doubt those conclusions. He stressed that he hadn’t yet received a security clearance and read the classified report.
After Rubio detailed the allegations of Russian hacking, propaganda and internet trolls to disrupt the electoral process, Tillerson said the public, unclassified report “indicates that all the actions you have described took place.” On whether Putin directed the initiative, Tillerson said, “I think that’s a fair assumption.”
Still, he said cooperation between Washington and Moscow remained desirable on many issues. It’s a line that hardly differs from that of the Obama administration.
“Russia today poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests,” Tillerson said, accusing the outgoing president of failing to demonstrate American resolve and sending mixed signals to both friends and adversaries.
Tillerson also faced questions about Trump’s controversial comments regarding Mexico, specifically the construction of a wall along the border and a suggestion that Mexican immigrants were “rapists” and criminals. The nominee rejected the president-elect’s remarks.
“Mexico is a longstanding neighbour and friend of this country,” he said.
Attorney general hearings continue
Elsewhere, confirmation hearings continued Wednesday for Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions that are also in Washington. Sessions laid out a sharply conservative vision for the Justice Department, pledging to crack down on illegal immigration, gun violence and the “scourge of radical Islamic terrorism” on Tuesday.
Cornell Brooks, the head of the NAACP, on Wednesday said Sessions was ”unfit to serve” as attorney general. Sessions was rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986 for a federal judgeship amid accusations that he had called a black attorney “boy” — which he denied — and the NAACP and ACLU “unAmerican.”
“We take no pleasure in stating that, in the view of the NAACP, Senator Sessions’ record conclusively demonstrates that he lacks the judgment and temperament to serve effectively as attorney general of the United States,” Brooks said in his testimony, saying the senator “evinces a clear disregard, disrespect and even disdain for the civil and human rights of racial and ethnic minorities, women, the disabled and others who suffer from discrimination in this country.”
Sessions on Tuesday called those accusations “damnably false” and said he is “totally committed to maintaining the freedom and equality that this country has to provide to every citizen.”