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Rex Tillerson Pressed On Views On Russia Relations In Confirmation Hearing


President-elect Donald Trump's pick for secretary of state is getting some tough questions this morning about the U.S. relationship with Russia. It's part of Rex Tillerson's confirmation hearing. The hearing was already expected to be dominated by questions about Russia because of Tillerson's extensive business ties. He was the former CEO of ExxonMobil. And all that was before unverified documents surfaced featuring claims of ties between Trump's presidential campaign and Russia. NPR congressional reporter Scott Detrow is following all of this, and he joins us from Capitol Hill. Good morning, Scott.


MARTIN: Give me the headline so far. What's going on?

DETROW: Russia, Russia, Russia, Russia. The first two hours of this hearing have been all about Russia. More broadly - but the Russian alleged hacking of the presidential election kind of messing with the election, with distributing Democratic documents that we spent so much time talking about over the last few months did come up pretty early on from a question from Senator Marco Rubio.


MARCO RUBIO: Do you believe during the 2016 presidential campaign Russian intelligence services directed a campaign of active measures involving the hacking of emails, the strategic leak of these emails, the use of internet trolls and the dissemination of fake news with the goal of denigrating a presidential candidate and also undermining faith in our election process?

REX TILLERSON: Senator, I have had no unclassified briefings because I've not received my clearance yet. However, I did read the interagency report that was released on January the 6. That report clearly is troubling and indicates that all of the actions you just described were undertaken.

DETROW: And Tillerson's been pretty careful in this hearing. He said a lot of times that he needs to look at classified documents answering different questions.

MARTIN: There have also been broader questions about where President-elect Trump and Rex Tillerson himself stand on Russia's role in the world. How did Tillerson respond to that?

DETROW: Well, yeah, there have been because of the warm words that Donald Trump has had for Russia, wanting to have improved relationships, and also because of ExxonMobil's long business ties with that country and Tillerson's close relationship with Putin. Tillerson made it clear in his opening statement that he would take a tough line on Russia as secretary of state.


TILLERSON: We must also be clear-eyed about our relationship with Russia. Russia today poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interest. It has invaded the Ukraine, including the taking of Crimea, and supported Syrian forces that brutally violate the laws of war. Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia.

DETROW: But Tillerson did say that the U.S. needs to engage with the country and that there could be some common interests, like dealing with terrorism. The Trump transition was clearly strategic in having former Defense Secretary Robert Gates introduce Tillerson. Gates is respected the national security community and spent decades as a Russia hawk. He said the U.S. does need to thread that needle of being tough but also engaging, and Gates said that he sees Tillerson as someone who can do that.

MARTIN: So did the senators get specific about what that would look like? I mean, being tough on Russia, but also engaging?

DETROW: Yeah. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the committee, asked several questions early on. He asked Tillerson whether Tillerson views Putin as someone who violates human rights. Tillerson said he did. Cardin also asked does he think Russia's invasion of Crimea was legal, and Tillerson said he did not. But Marco Rubio pressed Tillerson, asking, do you think Vladimir Putin is a war criminal? Tillerson said that's not language he wants to use lightly. He needs to see more classified material.

MARTIN: Real quick, is Tillerson going to get confirmed?

DETROW: He has good chance. But watch people like Rubio because Republicans do have a slim margin and Rubio has been pretty skeptical and almost hostile early on in this hearing.

MARTIN: NPR's Scott Detrow on the Hill. Thanks, Scott.

DETROW: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.