Early on in secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing, it became evident that he has an extremely difficult line to walk on Russia.
As Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) grilled him on Russian misdeeds ranging from invading Ukraine to backing the murderous Assad regime in Syria and killing off political dissidents, Tillerson had to strike a balance between sounding adequately tough in representing American interests and not foreclosing the opportunity for his potential future boss to warm relations with Moscow. He mainly achieved that by dodging questions.
Sanctions were a major focal point of the exchange. Analysts think it’s likely that Donald Trump could lift sanctions currently in place against Russia — or push back against new ones — in a bid to improve ties with the Kremlin, and Rubio pressed Tillerson on it.
“If Congress passed a bill imposing mandatory visa bans and asset freeze sanctions on persons who engage in significant activities undermining the cybersecurity of public or private infrastructure and democratic institutions in the United States, would you advise the president to sign it?” Rubio asked.
“I would want to examine all the corners, all four corners of that,” Tillerson answered.
“Those are the four corners,” Rubio retorted. “We would sanction people who are involved in cyberattacks against the United States and interfering in our elections.”
“The threat of cyber attacks is a broad issue which is coming from many, many corners of the world,” Tillerson replied. “Certainly this most recent manifestation, and the new threat posed in terms of how Russia has used this as a tool, that introduces even another element of threat. But cyberattacks are occurring from many nations.”
Tillerson’s description of cyberattacks originating in “many corners of the world” echoes Trump’s response to the intelligence community’s report that Russia tried to tip the presidential election. The subtext of the language is that the US tolerates cyberattacks from competitors and rivals around the world without always responding harshly; thus, slapping sanctions on Russia shouldn’t be considered the only course of action in response.
As the exchange carried on, it became clear: Tillerson did not want to commit to any firm position on using sanctions against Russia.
When Rubio tried to get Tillerson to acknowledge Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support of the Assad regime and other foreign policy adventurism, Tillerson was strikingly coy.
“Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?” Rubio asked.
“I would not use that term,” Tillerson replied.
Watch the whole exchange here: