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.
On Wednesday, Rubio tried to get Tillerson to agree to the legislation he and nine other senators proposed Tuesday to impose sanctions on Russia for cyber intrusions. But Tillerson would not bite, saying he’s not ready to unconditionally support such legislation.
Then, Rubio, acting like a prosecutor, escalated his questioning.
“Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?” the Florida Republican asked the longtime Exxon Mobil chief executive.
“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 also denied that Exxon lobbied against U.S. sanctions against Russia, despite a Politico report that the company acted on Capitol Hill to successfully scuttle such legislation last month. Shown Exxon’s lobbying reports at the hearing, Tillerson insisted they were “inaccurate.”
Trump acknowledged in a news conference Wednesday, held in New York at the same time as Tillerson’s confirmation hearing, 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.”
Rubio has yet to say how he plans to vote on Tillerson’s nomination. He expressed concern shortly after Trump picked him, tweeting that “being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState.”
High-level Republicans, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, were reportedly dispatched to ease Rubio’s mind. The senator thanked Tillerson earlier this week for meeting with him privately ahead of Wednesday’s hearing.
During the presidential campaign, Rubio blasted Putin and said he disagreed with Trump, his former primary rival, on Russia — but not enough to revoke his endorsement of Trump’s candidacy.
“Vladimir Putin is not a president,” Rubio said in September. “He’s a dictator.”
McClatchy correspondent Alex Daugherty contributed to this report from Washington.
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