Tillerson says U.S. can ‘define a different relationship’ with Russia

Politics

STEVE INSKEEP: The president-elect, as we have heard, took some questions about his relationship with Russia. And many more questions today went to his choice for secretary of state. Margaret Warner has been watching the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

MARGARET WARNER: Rex Tillerson was nearly obscured by the mob of cameras as he settled in for the marathon session. Senators quickly focused on the topic of Russia.

Did Tillerson, as chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, have too cozy a relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin?

Florida Republican Marco Rubio:

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-Fla.): Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?

REX TILLERSON, Secretary of State-Designate: I wouldn't use that term.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: In Aleppo, Mr. Putin has directed his military to conduct a devastating campaign. He's targeted schools, markets. It's resulted in the death of thousands of civilians. This is not the first time Mr. Putin is involved in campaigns of this kind.

REX TILLERSON: Those are very, very serious charges to make, and I would want to have much more information before reaching a conclusion.

(CROSSTALK)

REX TILLERSON: I would want to be fully informed before advising the president.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Well, are you aware that people who oppose Vladimir Putin wind up dead all over the world, poisoned, shot in the back of the head? And do you think that was coincidental, or do you think that it is quite possible or likely, as I believe, that they were a part of an effort to murder his political opponents?

REX TILLERSON: Well, people who speak up for freedom in regimes that are repressive are often at threat, and these things happen to them. In terms of assigning specific responsibilities, I would have to have more information.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: None of this is classified, Mr. Tillerson. These people are dead.

MARGARET WARNER: Tillerson, at ExxonMobil, brokered multibillion-dollar deals with Russia, meeting with Putin multiple times. In 2013, he received the Order of Friendship award from Putin himself. But Tillerson today said he'd support continuing sanctions against Russia for now. He also implied his intimate knowledge of Russia meant he understood its strategy, and could anticipate its moves, to America's benefit.

REX TILLERSON: Do you want this to get worse? Or does Russia desire a different relationship? We're not likely to ever be friends. But I also know the Russian people, because of having spent so many years in Russia. There is scope to define a different relationship that can bring down the temperature around the conflicts we have today.

MARGARET WARNER: Outside the hearing and inside, protesters called on senators to reject the nominee for his big oil ties. Tillerson promised to recuse himself for a year from any decisions that would affect ExxonMobil.

REX TILLERSON: My love of country and my patriotism is going to dictate that I serve no one's interests but that of the American people in advancing our own national security.

MARGARET WARNER: Climate change was also at issue. As candidate, president-elect Trump called it a hoax, and promised to pull out of the new Paris agreement on greenhouse gas emissions.

At Exxon, Tillerson did oversee the company's shift from vigorously denying climate change to acknowledging it. Today, he did the same, with a caveat.

REX TILLERSON: I came to the conclusion a few years ago that the risk of climate change does exist.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R-Tenn.): You believe that human activity, based on your belief and the science, is contributing to climate change?

REX TILLERSON: The increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.

MARGARET WARNER: At steps along the way, Tillerson showed he diverges with Mr. Trump, as here on NATO's response following Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D-Md.): So, your recommendation would have been to do a more robust supply of military?

REX TILLERSON: Yes, sir. what — I think what Russian leadership would have understood is a powerful response that indicated a, yes, you took the Crimea, but this stops right here.

SEN. BEN CARDIN: And that's encouraging to me to hear you say that, because it's not exactly consistent with what Mr. Trump has been saying.

MARGARET WARNER: Tillerson said if Russia invaded a NATO ally, he'd support an alliance response under Article V.

He had some tough words on China, too, equating its island-building in the South China Sea with Russia's annexation of Crimea. Mr. Trump's penchant for announcing policy on Twitter also came up.

REP. TODD YOUNG (R-Ind.): So, how do you finesse this? How would you ensure the legs are not cut out from underneath you as the nation's chief diplomat?

REX TILLERSON: Well, if confirmed, and I am able to serve this president-elect, I don't think I'm going to be telling the boss how he ought to communicate with American people. That's going to be his choice.

REP. TODD YOUNG: Do you have in mind any contingency plans to address…

REX TILLERSON: Yes, I have his cell phone number.

REP. TODD YOUNG: OK.

REX TILLERSON: And he's promised me he will answer.

MARGARET WARNER: Tillerson's confirmation hearing is set to continue tomorrow morning.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Margaret Warner.

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