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Nate Jackson / January 12, 2017

Rubio Grills Tillerson on Russia

How would the secretary of state nominee handle Putin and Moscow?

Senate hearings to confirm (or reject) Rex Tillerson as secretary of state began Wednesday, and, as predicted, there were fireworks over Tillerson’s relationship with Vladimir Putin. As we warned from the outset, Tillerson’s biggest negative is his close ties to Putin — he received Russia’s Order of Friendship in 2013. These ties are especially problematic given the Kremlin’s interference in the U.S. election and the Leftmedia’s incessant work to paint Donald Trump as Putin’s stooge. Should Tillerson be confirmed, everything he does will be reported through that prism. That’s if he’s confirmed…

To dispel those concerns, Tillerson testified that Moscow is a “danger” to the U.S. “We must also be clear-eyed about our relationship with Russia,” Tillerson said. “Russia today poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests. … [O]ur NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia.” He also harshly criticized Russia for its annexation of Crimea in 2014, as well as the Obama’s administration’s “weak response.”

But that didn’t stop Sen. Marco Rubio from grilling Tillerson on whether he’d go so far as to call Putin a “war criminal” given public record reports of atrocities committed by the Russian military in Aleppo. “I would not use that term,” Tillerson answered. Asking such questions now is critical to establishing whether Tillerson is trustworthy when it comes to becoming the nation’s top diplomat or whether he’s unwilling to take a clear stand or, worse, defending his friend, Putin.

To be sure, Rubio’s question was somewhat of the “gotcha” variety, so Tillerson was arguably wise to avoid going further without having access to more detailed classified information. “I would want to be fully informed before advising the president,” he said. He can’t take office having accused Putin of war crimes during his hearing. At the same time, Tillerson came off not so much as cautious as unprepared, and he explicitly rejected Rubio’s premise. Such questions should have been expected, and “I need more information” isn’t a strong response.

This exchange and Tillerson’s other shortcomings notwithstanding, U.S. diplomacy could use a serious shot in the arm after eight years of John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, and we continue to believe Tillerson brings a lot to the table. Whether enough Senate Republicans agree remains to be seen.

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