There were many issues to cover during the confirmation hearing for Rex Tillerson, the former C.E.O. of ExxonMobil who is the President-elect’s nominee for Secretary of State, all of them containing the potential for fireworks: climate change; Tillerson’s financial entanglements; the rise of anti-democratic movements around the world; ISIS. The subject that actually lit up the room was raised relatively early in the proceedings on Wednesday, and was the only thing that anyone seemed to want to talk about all day; it came up when the Florida senator Marco Rubio started asking questions about Russia.
Rubio’s opening was cutting: “Do you believe, during the 2016 Presidential campaign, that Russian intelligence services directed a campaign of active measures, involving the hacking of e-mails, the strategic leak of these e-mails, the use of Internet trolls, and the dissemination of fake news, with the goal of denigrating a Presidential candidate and undermining faith in our election process?” There was no doubt that the denigrated candidate he referred to was the one defeated by Tillerson’s soon-to-be boss.
This was not the first question on Russia. Earlier in the hearing, during questioning by other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, there had been some discussion about Russia, Putin, Crimea, and the so-called Minsk agreement. This came after Tillerson had introduced his wife, Renda, “who for more than thirty years kept a welcoming home when I came back from my many travels.” Tillerson had answered the previous Russia questions in a fashion that seemed reassuring to committee members, stating that Russia did not have a legal claim to Crimea, the part of Ukraine that it recently annexed. Apart from the interruptions by protesters-the first of whom was a woman with gray hair, who called out in a grandmotherly voice, as she was escorted from the room, “Rex Tillerson, I reject you! My home was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy!”-the tone had been essentially polite. But then, more than an hour in, Rubio leaned into his microphone.
There had been some discussion beforehand, aired in the Washington Post, about what sort of approach Rubio, the scorned Presidential candidate, would take when confronting Tillerson. “The Florida Republican is likely to reveal what kind of future he wants in President-elect Donald Trump’s Washington,” the Post ‘s Paul Kane wrote. Would Rubio indicate that he wanted to join those Republican colleagues who have adopted a new level of flexibility in their thinking, and possibly abandon ideas that he had been advocating for years in order to become a Trump facilitator? Or would he play the role of the aggressive skeptic, probing Tillerson’s financial ties and Russian sympathies, and staking out his independence?
After stating that he had not yet received his security clearances, and therefore had not yet seen any classified information, Tillerson responded to Rubio’s question by saying that he had read the report about the hacking of the Democratic National Committee that was released publicly on January 6th. “That report clearly is troubling,” Tillerson said. “And clearly indicates that all of the actions you describe were undertaken.”
Rubio asked, based on Tillerson’s vast reserve of knowledge about Russia and Russian politics, accrued during his career doing deals in that country as head of Exxon, whether it was possible that a cyberattack of this scale on the United States election could have happened without Putin’s knowledge.
Tillerson looked pained, and placed his hand on his heart, in a sort of God’s-honest-truth pose. “I’m not in a position to make that determination,” he said. He needed more information.
Rubio interrupted him and said, “Mr. Tillerson, you’ve engaged in significant business activities in Russia, so I’m sure you’re aware very few things of a major proportion happen in that country without Vladimir Putin’s permission.”
“I think that’s a fair assumption,” Tillerson finally said.
There was urgency to Rubio’s interrogation, as, in another city, inside a shiny tower on Fifth Avenue, throngs of reporters were waiting for President-elect Donald Trump to begin his first press conference since the election. The topic there was expected to be Russia as well, and as soon as it started all eyes were likely to shift away from Washington.
Rubio quickly moved on to sanctions that the Obama Administration imposed on Russia late last month, in retaliation for the hacking. He wanted to know whether Tillerson would support a possible law to penalize any country that tried to influence a U.S. election through cyberattacks. Here, Tillerson was even less clear, but his basic point seemed to be that he would want to take into consideration trading relationships and other dealings between the United States and the offending country before imposing any penalties; he said that he opposed the blanket, automatic imposition of sanctions. Tillerson, after all, has spent his career as a corporate chieftain-one who knows the value of pushing economic interests to the top of every calculation.
He and Rubio went back and forth, with the senator expressing incredulity that Tillerson was basically admitting that he might decline to penalize a foreign government if it would harm the U.S.’s economic interests. He then asked whether Tillerson would support the sanctions already imposed by the United States on Russia over the election-related attacks.
Rather than addressing the specific question, Tillerson spoke about the need for a “comprehensive cybersecurity plan” and for a “comprehensive assessment of our cyber threat.” It was a familiar strategy of subject-changing and obfuscation, a stab at a verbal filibuster. Rubio kept asking, and Tillerson kept saying that he didn’t have enough information to answer.
“Okay,” Rubio finally said. “Let me ask you this: Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?”
“I would not use that term,” Tillerson said, scowling.
“Well,” Rubio said, “let me describe the situation in Aleppo.”
In the time since Trump accrued the Electoral College votes required to become President, there has been a lot of worry about the pillars and institutions of American democracy, the potential for corruption and self-enrichment posed by the new Administration, and the state of national security on a global scale. The depth and validity of those worries-whether they are urgent realities already coming to pass or are merely the overdramatic fantasies of people reading too many books about Germany in 1933-rest largely on the shoulders of Republicans in Washington, who hold the power to check the actions of Trump and his Cabinet. Today, as Rubio listed the myriad atrocities committed in Syria, and Tillerson continued to muddle, there was an indication that at least a small minority of those Republicans are taking their responsibility seriously.