Donald Trump's pick for secretary of state, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, adopted a tough new line on Russia on Wednesday, calling it a "danger" to the United States and saying 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.
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.
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 either he or 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.
"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.
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.
The oil man represents a break in a longstanding tradition of secretaries of state with extensive military, legislative, political or diplomatic experience.
Yet his supporters, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, point to Tillerson's lengthy career as a senior executive in a mammoth multinational company as proof he has the management and negotiating skills to succeed in the State Department's top post, particularly with tough rivals.
Defenders such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and arms control expert and former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., said his understanding of Russia is a benefit.
The Democratic National Committee argued otherwise Wednesday. "We need a secretary of state willing to stand up to Russia," senior adviser Zac Petkanas said.
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