Irritated Rubio grills Rex Tillerson on Russia: “Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?”
Gotta say, although I think Rubio will cave and end up voting for Tillerson reluctantly, the palpable disdain he evinces here for the nominee really has me wondering. You don’t expect resolve from a guy who said in the primaries that Trump was unfit to command the nuclear arsenal and then endorsed him for president a few months later, but it’s hard logically to get from the point A of this clip to the point B of Rubio voting to confirm. And remember, his vote counts more than most: He’s a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will vote after the hearing on whether to recommend Tillerson to the full Senate. The GOP enjoys an 11-10 advantage on that committee. If Rubio flips and votes no, the GOP will need to flip a Democrat or else Tillerson will lose the committee vote. And it’s unusual for a nominee who fails in committee to be confirmed by the full Senate.
The most striking thing about this clip isn’t Rubio’s contempt for Tillerson, though, it’s how unprepared Tillerson seems to be for the line of questions despite the fact that there are no surprises. Rubio wants to know if he accepts the intelligence community’s judgment that Russia did the DNC and Podesta hackings; if he and Trump will keep sanctions on Russia in place; if he thinks Putin is a war criminal, specifically with respect to Russia’s carpet-bombing of Aleppo and Grozny; and if he believes Putin targets his political enemies for death. Tillerson could have answered yes to all of the questions about Putin’s nefariousness but hedged on sanctions by saying something like this: “Senator, you and I agree that America has an important role to play in the world in standing up for human rights, but I think we also agree that the U.S. government’s first duty is to advance the interests of American citizens. If we think we can best achieve that goal through dialogue with Russia, we’ll follow that strategy. And in doing so, we’ll be under no illusions about Putin’s bad intentions.” In other words, respond to Rubio’s idealistic neoconservatism with some somber America-First realpolitik. Instead all Tillerson can do is play dumb, insisting in most cases he needs more information to form a judgment, which comes off as obtuse and dishonest. On the matter of Putin being a war criminal, he actually disagrees with Rubio. Given the fact of his chummy business acquaintance with Putin, it feels at times as though he’s covering for a friend, which I’m sure is exactly how Rubio was hoping this would turn out. As I say, I think the GOP will fall in line and end up voting to confirm, but Tillerson did himself no favors with Senate hawks here.