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.
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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 talked policy details 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 neither he nor 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.
Tripped up on question of Exxon lobbying
"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.
Tillerson also said he didn't support the creation of a registry for Muslims, or any religious group, an idea that came up on the campaign trail.
Session hearings continue
Also Wednesday, several black politicians said Jeff Sessions at times has shown hostility toward civil rights, making him unfit to be attorney general, as a 1986 letter from the widow of Martin Luther King Jr. surfaced strongly expressing opposition to the Alabama senator.
In the second and final day of Sessions's confirmation hearing, senator Cory Booker and Democratic congressmen John Lewis, who was beaten when he marched for civil rights in the 1960s, warned that Sessions could move the country backward if confirmed as Trump's top law enforcement official.
Booker said the "arc of the universe does not just naturally curve toward justice, we must bend it," and the country needs an attorney general who is determined to bend it.
"Senator Sessions' record does not speak to that desire, intention or will," Booker said, noting his opposition to overhauling the criminal justice system and his positions on other issues affecting minority groups.
Lewis told the Senate judiciary committee that the country needs "someone who's going to stand up, speak up and speak out for the people that need help, the people who have been discriminated against."
The lawmakers' criticism echoed Cornell Brooks, the head of the NAACP, who told the panel earlier in the day that the organization "firmly believes" Sessions is unfit to serve.
The Alabama Republican was rejected by the judiciary panel in 1986 for a federal judgeship amid accusations that he had called a black attorney "boy" — which he denied — and the NAACP and ACLU "un-American."
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."
Sessions is expected to easily win confirmation, but Democrats are using the hearings to try to show that Sessions — and Trump's administration — won't be committed to civil rights, a chief priority of the Justice Department during the Obama administration.
On Tuesday, the NAACP released a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King, widow of the civil rights leader, in which she said that Sessions's actions as a federal prosecutor were "reprehensible" and that he used his office "in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters."
"Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge," King wrote.