President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to be the new US envoy to the world said Wednesday that Russia must be held to account for its actions، but added Washington and Moscow should cooperate where possible, CNN reported.
Rex Tillerson laid out that vision in the opening statement of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations amid controversy about a CNN report that Russia may have compromising information about the President-elect.
"Where cooperation with Russia based on common interests is possible، such as reducing the global threat of terrorism، we ought to explore these options،" Tillerson said. "We need an open and frank dialogue with Russia regarding its ambitions، so that we know how to chart our own course."
But he went on to strike a tougher line on Moscow than Trump has to date، saying that "Russia must know that we will be accountable to our commitments and those of our allies، and that Russia must be held to account for its actions."
Even so، Democrats came out swinging، questioning the former ExxonMobil CEO's failure in his prepared opening remarks to mention Russia's alleged hacking of US elections، his views on human rights and climate change، and ExxonMobil's ties to Russia.
Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin، the ranking Democrat on the committee، pointed to Trump's refusal to acknowledge the intelligence community's assessment about Russian hacking and asked Tillerson what he would do about it.
"We need to stand up to that bully in Moscow،" Cardin said.
Cardin said he would be quizzing Tillerson on ExxonMobil's business deals with Russia، indicating that they "supported directly or indirectly" some of Russian President Vladimir Putin's more aggressive activities.
"It's not too great of a distance from Exxon business partnerships to Putin's slush funds" for disinformation and other activities، Cardin charged.
The former ExxonMobil CEO claims close ties to Putin، having overseen the company's partnership with a state-owned energy giant there، work that earned him the country's highest award for non-citizens.
Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates، who introduced Tillerson to the committee، noted that "much has been said about Mr. Tillerson and Russia." He went on to say that the secretary of state job requires resisting Russian aggression and containing the risk of conflict.
Referring to the Russian president، he said that "this new administration must thread the needle between pushing back against Vladimir Putin's aggression، meddling، interventionism، ambitions and bullying، and at the same time، find a way to stop the dangerous downward spiral in our relationship with Russia." He added that "Tillerson is the right person at the right time."
In opening remarks that were interrupted by a shouting protestor، the nominee also validated NATO allies' concerns about Russian aggression but said that some of the blame lies with the Obama administration. The US "sent weak or mixed signals with 'red lines' that turned into green lights،" Tillerson said. "We did not recognize that Russia does not think like we do."
And he struck a note of wary realism.
"We must also be clear-eyed about our relationship with Russia،" Tillerson told senators. "Russia today poses a danger، but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests." And he added that "where cooperation with Russia based on common interests is possible، such as reducing the global threat of terrorism، we ought to explore these options."
The dark-horse candidate for the Foggy Bottom post has already prompted concerns from human rights groups that cite his former company's practices and lawmakers who charge that he has a track record of putting profits before US interests، with one saying he could be a "disaster" as secretary of state.
Democrats will drill the 64-year-old on whether his business experience -- he's never served in government -- adequately prepares him for heading the State Department. Lawmakers on both sides will look to see whether Tillerson will balance out foreign policy positions that Trump has taken and that many on Capitol Hill see as extreme.
And at a time of deepening global upheaval، both Republicans and Democrats will seek to understand how Tillerson sees the world.
"He's somewhat a blank canvas،" said Derek Chollet، an executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund.
"He's someone who's very experienced in the world، who has a lot of experience dealing with tricky issues with foreign counterparts. He's even probably pretty knowledgeable on issues like human rights because of the roles those issues play in the extractive industries،" Chollet added. "But we don't know much about how he thinks. There's very little for anyone to draw on for specifics."
Tillerson's big moment in the spotlight comes as CNN reported Tuesday that US intelligence agencies are investigating reports that Russia collected sensitive and potentially compromising information about Trump's personal and financial affairs.
The information، from a firm run by a former British intelligence operative، also indicated that throughout the campaign، Trump surrogates were in touch with intermediaries for the Russian government. Sen. John McCain، an Arizona Republican، became aware of the information in December and passed it to FBI Director James Comey that month.
Republicans will be key to Tillerson's ability to get through the Foreign Relations Committee and to the Senate floor، where his nomination needs 51 votes to pass. The committee is controlled by Republicans، who hold 10 of the 19 seats. If all Democrats oppose him and they're joined by just one Republican، Tillerson could stall there.
University of Texas at Austin. He's never worked anywhere else.
Tillerson emerged as a candidate for secretary of state after high-profile national security Republicans -- all of whom had worked for the oil company at some point -- recommended him to Trump. Former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and James Baker، former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and Gates، the former Defense Secretary، sang Tillerson's praises.
He eventually won out over more well-known figures، including former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and ex-UN Ambassador John Bolton. After Tillerson's nomination was announced، Washington watchers began sifting through his company's record for clues as to how he might perform on the world stage.
Tillerson built his career on exploration with Russian energy giant Rosneft، making Russia ExxonMobil's largest exploration theater. Russian officials hailed the announcement of Tillerson's nomination.
"Trump continues to amaze،" said the head of the foreign affairs committee in the Russian parliament's lower house، Alexey Pushkov، who added that Tillerson would be a "sensation."
Trump has hinted at lifting sanctions on Russia، said Angela Stent، director of the Center for Eurasian، Russian and East European studies at Georgetown University، a step that could benefit ExxonMobil enormously.
"Out of all the energy companies، Exxon would be the biggest beneficiary،" Brian Youngberg، a senior energy analyst at Edward Jones told CNN last month.
Tillerson has since moved to divest himself of his stock and of future payouts he was set to receive from the energy company. He has also said he would recuse himself from decisions that might affect the company for the first year of his tenure as secretary of state.