I watched the first hour and a half of Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing before switching to Donald Trump’s news conference. Tillerson is an impressive witness and, I think it’s reasonable to assume, an extremely impressive man.
His answers and manner of speaking stand in wonderful contrast to the man he will succeed (if confirmed) — John “Foghorn” Kerry. Tillerson is plainspoken, gives short answers when feasible, and likes to use terms like “reality.” I am nearly certain that, if confirmed, Tillerson will not exhibit Kerry’s penchant for wishful thinking.
Tillerson sailed through questioning by the Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, Sen. Ben Cardin. He made it clear, both in his opening statement and his responses to Cardin, that he believes Russia poses a threat. He cited Ukraine and Syria.
His view is that Russia’s misconduct occurred in the context of weak signals by the U.S. He cited “red lines that became green lights” as well as an inadequate response to the takeover of Crimea.
Tillerson’s take on Putin is that the Russian leader will push to expand Russian influence, judge the Western response, and make his next moves according to the response. Because our responses have been inadequate, Russia has continued to push.
Tillerson says he considers Russia an adversary, but that it is possible for adversaries to be partners on certain matters. Tillerson favors dialogue with Russia to find areas where the U.S. may be able to partner with Russia. However, to make this possible he believes the U.S. will need to respond firmly to Russian misconduct so that Putin will re-calibrate his approach.
These statements sat well with Sen. Cardin. However, Tillerson can’t count on his vote or the vote of any Democrat. Thus, he very likely will need nearly unanimous support from Republicans. This means that Marco Rubio’s questioning was very high stakes.
Sen. Rubio pushed Tillerson hard on Russia. First, he asked whether Tillerson believes Russia engaged in hacking related to the election. Tillerson indicated that he does. He said he has read the intelligence report and finds it “troubling.”
Rubio then asked whether Russia could have done such hacking whether Putin knowing about it. Tillerson responded that it’s fair to assume Putin knew.
So far, so good.
Rubio then wanted to know whether Tillerson favors a law requiring the president to impose sanctions in response to foreign hacking. Tillerson said he does not because the president needs discretion. He noted that the president needs to factor in the totality of our relations with the country in question and what other options are available.
That sounds reasonable to me, but Rubio didn’t seem happy.
Next, Rubio asked whether Tillerson favors keeping in place the executive order President Obama put in place regarding sanctioning Russia. Tillerson said he needs to study it.
Again, this sounds reasonable. Again, Rubio didn’t seem happy.
Next came the questions that produced the answers Rubio seemed to like the least. The Florida Senator asked whether Tillerson considers Putin a war criminal. He cited Russia’s bombing of Aleppo as well as atrocities it committed years ago in Chechnya.
Tillerson said he needs more information before he can go so far as to call Putin a war criminal.
Rubio followed up by asking whether Putin is responsible for killing dissidents. Tillerson said he would need more information before he could say this.
Rubio appeared very dissatisfied with Tillerson’s answers to this line of questioning.
Later on, committee chairman Bob Corker sought to clarify this matter. He asked whether, if the public information about Aleppo is confirmed by his review of other information, Tillerson would consider Russia’s action criminal. Tillerson said he would.
Whether this clarification satisfied Rubio, whose vote could be crucial, and whether it was enough to offset Rubio’s dissatisfaction with other answers, remains to be seen.
Personally, I was satisfied with the portions of Tillerson’s testimony I heard regarding Putin. He knows Russia, he knows Putin, and he seems to have a clear-eyed view of both.
If the incoming administration has a Putin problem, I think it resides with Donald Trump, not with Rex Tillerson.
UPDATE: Tillerson criticized the U.N. resolution on Israel that the Obama administration enabled. He also denounced John Kerry’s speech on Israel.
MORE FROM RUBIO: Late in the afternoon, Sen. Rubio used his last round at the hearing to explain why he’s concerned about Tillerson’s unwillingness to call Putin a war criminal, and about similar reticence the nominee displayed regarding China and Saudi Arabia. In essence, Rubio said we need moral clarity from the Secretary of State, lest the rest of the world become demoralized.
Rubio complained that during the Cold War, the U.S. tended not to blast foreign leaders and governments when we thought that doing so would hurt our strategic interests. He’s right about this, but wrong in suggesting that this approach is always wrong.
Rubio didn’t say how he plans to vote on the nomination, but his statement is not encouraging for Tillerson’s confirmation prospects.
Personally, I’m not bothered by Tillerson’s unwillingness to call foreign leaders and countries names during his confirmation hearing. Tillerson isn’t running for office or auditioning for a pundit job. He hopes to become, in effect, our chief diplomat.
I don’t see how that role would be advanced by indulging in labeling during a hearing. There’s a time for expressing moral indignation, but this wasn’t it.
Based on the parts of his testimony I heard, Tillerson seems sufficiently clear-eyed about Putin. The big question is whether the same can be said for Donald Trump.