Rubio, other senators press nominee Tillerson over Russia, Putin

Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson has faced skepticism from key Republicans. "Many of his answers were concerning to me," Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said.

WASHINGTON - Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of state, drew skepticism from Democrats and a key Republican over the incoming administration's approach toward Russia on Wednesday, leaving unclear if he would be confirmed for the high-profile cabinet post.

After Tillerson hedged on questions about sanctioning Russia and about its president, Vladimir Putin, Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) would not commit himself to supporting the nominee. "Many of his answers were concerning to me," Rubio later said.

At least two other GOP senators have expressed reservations, potentially enough to sway the outcome in a chamber where Republicans hold a narrow edge.

Still, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's chairman, Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), said he believed Tillerson could be confirmed and urged his colleagues to hear more from the nominee.

The nine-hour hearing featured bruising exchanges as senators pressed a man who several said might hold the second-most important position in the government.

The secretary will be charged with guiding foreign policy under a president with no experience in government or diplomacy.

The hearing came the same day Trump faced reporters for the first time in months and amid reports Russia had meddled in the election and compiled damaging information about him. Those reports heightened scrutiny of Trump's seeming admiration for Putin and Tillerson's dealings in Russia. Rubio wasted no time getting to the subject.

"Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?" Rubio asked.

"I would not use that term," Tillerson said.

"Well, let me describe the situation in Aleppo," Rubio shot back, referring to the besieged Syrian city, "and perhaps that will help you reach that conclusion."

Rubio, a onetime Trump rival, then rattled off atrocities in the Syrian civil war, including attacks on schools, that he said were supported by Russia.

Tillerson said he would want to review classified documents and have more information before labeling anyone a war criminal.

Tillerson similarly wavered when Rubio asked about suspicious deaths of political dissidents, journalists, and Putin critics, saying he would again need more information before assigning blame.

Rubio said ample public information was available. "None of this is classified," he said. "These people are dead."

Tillerson acknowledged that Russia appears to be behind the hacking of Democratic computers, calling that development "troubling," and he branded the country's actions in Syria "not acceptable." He said he would support leaving in place sanctions on Russia until the new administration reviews them.

He later suggested to Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) that he and Trump had not thoroughly discussed policies toward Russia. Tillerson said they only discussed the president-elect's international vision in broad terms.

"That's pretty amazing," Menendez said.

Tillerson repeatedly demurred when pressed to condemn alleged human-rights violations in places such as the Philippines.

Democrats, in turn, asked Tillerson if he could separate the profit-focused approach he had as an executive from the public interest. "It's about putting patriotism over profit," Menendez said.

At times, Corker jumped in to help Tillerson clarify or soften his answers. For example, he asked if Tillerson would consider the acts Rubio described as war crimes if those acts were verified.

"Yes, sir," Tillerson said.

Afterward, Corker said Tillerson, a career businessman, might not come to the hearings with views as sharp as those of senators accustomed to making their arguments in public.

"You can imagine someone being brought in from another world, not having had those experiences, is going to want to be a little more cautious," he said.

Tillerson, a lifelong Texan, largely sketched his foreign-policy vision in broad strokes. On several issues he broke with the president-elect.

He said he did not oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an international trade agreement Trump has pilloried, though he had concerns about some of its terms.

He also said that he would oppose a blanket ban on Muslim immigration and that he disagreed with Trump's comments that it might be OK for Japan or South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons.

Tillerson envisioned a more muscular U.S. posture, blaming Russia's aggression on a weak response from Washington.

"It was in the absence of American leadership that this door was left open and unintended signals were sent," Tillerson said.

jtamari@phillynews.com

@JonathanTamari

www.philly.com/capitolinq

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