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Former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson takes heat on Russian stance at confirmation hearing

While his fellow Texans, U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, predicted Tillerson would serve the country well as the next U.S. secretary of state, others expressed deep reservations about his position on Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Rex Tillerson, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil, testifies before a Senate Foreign
Relations Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be U.S. secretary of state in Washington, D.C. on January
11, 2017.

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

WASHINGTON — Former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson took center stage amid a politically roiling capital on Wednesday as he sought Senate confirmation to become U.S. secretary of state. 

The Texas native and Trump nominee appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as President-elect Trump's ties with Russia continue to be on the forefront of many minds in Washington.  

The Tillerson hearing was one of the most anticipated questioning rounds with a Trump nominee, thanks to the former oil executive's ties to Russia and ongoing controversies and questions about Trump's own relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Upon Senate confirmation as the country’s top diplomat, Tillerson would have to negotiate the political fallout of a topic that has the potential to roil Congress and the Trump administration. 

Tillerson drew effusive support from his home-state delegation, U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz. Both men introduced Tillerson to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as is the custom in such hearings. 

"The depth and breadth of his experience as an accomplished and successful business leader and skilled negotiator give him a solid understanding of our current geopolitical and economic challenges, making him uniquely qualified to serve in this important office," Cornyn said.

"Rex Tillerson is a serious man who understands the value of perseverance,” Cruz concurred. "We need a secretary of state who understands that America is exceptional, who will establish policies upon that foundation of exceptionalism and who will put America's interest first."

Rex Tillerson (second from left), the former chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil, takes his seat to testify before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be U.S. secretary of state in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 11, 2017. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is seated to his left.REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst


Neither Texas senator serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and they therefore did not participate in Wednesday’s hearing. 

Tillerson was expected to face difficult questioning from Democrats on the committee, particularly regarding his business relationships with autocratic governments such as Russia. 

"We must ... be clear eyed about our relationship with Russia. Russia today poses a danger, but it not unpredictable in advancing its own interests," Tillerson said in his opening remarks. 

"Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia, but it was in the absence of American leadership that this door was left open and unintended signals were sent," he added, criticizing President Obama's handling of the Syrian conflict. 

"We backtracked on commitments to allies. We sent weak or mixed signals, with red lines that turned into green lights."

However, Tillerson faced strong questioning from Republican senators as well, particularly U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who hammered the businessman with queries on Russia, that country's influence in the 2016 election and the Syrian conflict and its handling of dissidents.

Rubio repeatedly asked Tillerson if Putin is a war criminal, citing Syria.

"Those are very, very serious charges to make," Tillerson answered. "And I would want to have much more information before reaching a conclusion."

"I understand there is a body of record in the public domain," Tillerson added. "I'm sure there's a body of record in the classified domain, and I think in order to deal with a serious question like this, I would want to be fully informed before advising the president."

The answer did not satisfy Rubio, who could be a pivotal vote in whether Tillerson clears confirmation.

"It should not be be hard to say that Vladimir Putin's military has conducted war crimes in Aleppo, because it is never acceptable, you would agree, for a military to specifically target civilians, which is what's happened through the Russian military," Rubio said.

"I find it discouraging, your inability to cite that, which I think is globally accepted," he added.

Later in the day, Rubio would not commit to supporting Tillerson's confirmation outside of the hearing, according to a CNN video. 

On a call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, Cornyn, too, declined to label Putin a “war criminal,” and instead referred to the Russian president as a “killer” and a “thug.” Cornyn said he wanted to exercise caution due to the possible implications of attaching that label to Putin but added he would take a closer look at all the evidence.

“I’m certainly no fan of Mr. Putin’s,” Cornyn said, “I believe he’s an enemy of the U.S., a thug and somebody to not be trusted.”

Amid questioning from U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, Tillerson said he had not yet had in-depth conversations with Trump on Russia.

Instead, he characterized their conversations "in a broad construct and in terms of the principles that are going to guide" the Trump administration's foreign policy worldview.

"I would have thought Russia would be at the very top of that, considering all of the actions that have taken place," Menendez said. "Did that not happen?"

"That has not occurred yet, Senator," Tillerson replied.

"That's pretty amazing," Menendez responded.

On several potentially sensitive questions from senators, Tillerson responded that he didn't have detailed knowledge on those issues, a move that allowed him to sidestep controversial debates but that some senators clearly found frustrating.

When Sen. Tim Kaine pressed Tillerson about Exxon's knowledge of global warming over the past several decades, Tillerson repeatedly referred the Virginia Democrat to Exxon for answers.

"Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question or are you refusing to answer my question?" Kaine asked.

"A little of both," Tillerson replied.

A confirmation hearing date for Tillerson’s fellow Texan tapped for Trump's cabinet, former Gov. Rick Perry, has yet to be scheduled. 

Cassandra Pollock contributed to this report.

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Disclosure: Exxon Mobil Corporation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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