Rex Tillerson, Trump's pick for secretary of State, seeks to allay fears about his long-running ties to Russia

Rex Tillerson faced harsh questions from fellow Republicans on Wednesday for his close personal ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, but his Senate confirmation as Donald Trump’s secretary of State did not appear to be in danger.

In a sometimes testy hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., the largest U.S. oil company, calmly defended his views on global warming, human rights and relations with Russia.

In a surprise, Tillerson said he and the president-elect had not yet discussed U.S. policy toward Russia, an issue that dominated Trump’s first postelection news conference after a U.S. intelligence report that said Putin sought to help Trump win the White House.

Tillerson, 64, also broke with Trump on foreign policy several times. It was unclear if that signaled a potential clash with the incoming White House or was intended to defuse his critics in Congress and the national security establishment.

Unlike Trump, he described an increasingly belligerent Russia as cause for alarm, and he condemned Moscow’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine in 2014 as illegal.

He also offered support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement that President Obama has championed and Trump has condemned.

He called for a “full review” of the international accord that seeks to block Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, but did not vow to rip it up as Trump has said.

He said he does not agree with Trump’s comments  in March that Japan and South Korea should build their own nuclear weapons to help counter North Korea. Trump has since suggested that he was misunderstood.

Tillerson said he would oppose broadening ties further with Cuba because of its continued arrests of political opponents and other human rights abuses. But he did not pledge to shut Obama’s diplomatic opening, as Trump has suggested.

Unlike Trump’s other picks for Cabinet positions, Tillerson repeatedly found himself under fire from fellow Republicans as he struggled, not always successfully, to allay concerns about his long-running ties to Russia.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) proved his toughest interrogator, demanding to know whether Tillerson would label Putin a war criminal for what the U.S. government has said are Russian-backed attacks on civilian targets in Syria.

Tillerson said he “would not use that term.”

Rubio cited civilian casualties and other atrocities in the Syrian city of Aleppo that he said were committed by Syrian government forces backed by Russia.

“Those are very, very serious charges to make and I would want to have more information,” Tillerson said.

Rubio seemed irked at the response, saying he found it “disturbing.”

Tillerson also said he did not have sufficient information to condemn Putin over accusations that the leader had ordered the killings of political dissidents, journalists and others in Russia. 

"None of this is classified," Rubio retorted. "These people are dead.”

Tillerson was repeatedly pressed on his opposition, while running Exxon Mobil, to the economic sanctions that Washington and its allies imposed on Putin’s government for its actions in Ukraine.

Tillerson denied that he or Exxon had lobbied the government over sanctions, but senators presented several official documents that appeared to show extensive lobbying by the company.

In his testimony, Tillerson said sanctions too often hurt U.S. companies that do business abroad. Exxon Mobil has said it lost $1 billion after sanctions on Russia effectively killed a planned oil and gas project. 

“In protecting American interests, sanctions are a powerful tool,” Tillerson said. “Let’s design them well, target them well, enforce them fully.”

He said he believed Trump agreed with him on this matter.

He found support in the committee when he condemned Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, and its support for antigovernment insurgents in eastern Ukraine, actions he stated were illegal.

“The taking of Crimea caught a lot of people by surprise,” Tillerson said.

“The absence of a firm, forceful response” by the Obama administration was interpreted by Putin as permission to push farther into Ukraine and to launch other military operations abroad, he added. “What Russian leadership would have understood was a more forceful response.”

Again departing from Trump, he said he would have provided the Ukraine government with defensive weapons and made a show of increased border surveillance and intelligence-sharing.

If he is confirmed, Tillerson said he will sever ties to Exxon Mobil. But he would not commit to recusing himself on matters involving the energy industry beyond the first legally required year in office.

He was interrupted several times by hecklers, who were quickly ushered out of the chamber by guards. “Don’t put Exxon in charge of the State Department!” one woman shouted.

The hearing continues Thursday.

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter

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UPDATES:

3:15 p.m. This article was updated with additional details from the hearing.

This article was originally published at 9:55 a.m.

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