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Rocky start for Trump's State Department nominee

Rocky start for Trump's State Department nominee
© Greg Nash

Rex Tillerson got a rough reception during his confirmation hearing for secretary of State Wednesday, at times coming under fire from both parties on issues ranging from Russia to climate change. 

Democrats assailed Tillerson over Exxon Mobil’s lobbying on Russia sanctions during his tenure as CEO of the oil giant. Those questions put Tillerson on the defensive; he initially denied ever lobbying on the Russia sanctions, only to backtrack slightly after senators challenged him. 

But the most worrisome interactions for Tillerson came with a Republican, Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioBipartisan group of senators holds immigration talks amid border surge Senate GOP keeps symbolic earmark ban On The Money: Senate GOP faces post-Trump spending brawl | Senate confirms SEC chief Gensler to full five-year term | Left-leaning group raises concerns about SALT cap repeal MORE, whose tough questioning pushed the would-be diplomat into rough waters.

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Rubio’s decision on whether to support Tillerson is especially important, as a Republican vote against the nominee on the Foreign Relations Committee could complicate his nomination. 

In a tense back-and-forth, Rubio pressed Tillerson to come out strongly against Russian President Vladimir Putin. He asked if Tillerson considered him a war criminal for his role in the Syria conflict and probed how extensively he thought the U.S. should sanction the country. 

"What's troubling about your answer is the implication that if there's some country we are trying to improve relations with or have significant economic ties to, you may advise the president not to impose sanctions on that country," Rubio said.  

Later, Tillerson struggled to answer Rubio’s questions about his positions on a range of issues, including the U.S.’s relationship with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women.

“My interests are the same as yours. Our interests are not different, senator,” Tillerson said to Rubio. “There seems to be some misunderstanding that I see the world through a different lens. I do not. I share all the same values you share and want the same things, the world over, in terms of freedom.”

Russia was the biggest single issue to come up during Tillerson’s hearing, the first of two days of testimony he’s expected to provide this week.

Asked by Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezBiden rebuffs Democrats, keeps refugee admissions at 15,000 Bottom line The Memo: Biden's five biggest foreign policy challenges MORE (D-N.J.) if President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpUS gives examples of possible sanctions relief to Iran GOP lawmaker demands review over FBI saying baseball shooting was 'suicide by cop' House passes bill aimed at stopping future Trump travel ban MORE agrees with Tillerson’s denouncements of Russia’s forays in Crimea, Syria and on human rights, the nominee said he wasn’t sure.

“The president-elect and I have not had the opportunity to discuss this specific issue or this specific area,” Tillerson said.

“That’s pretty amazing,” Menendez replied.

Tensions also flared over the sanctions the U.S. slapped on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Tillerson denied lobbying against the sanctions. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerFox News inks contributor deal with former Democratic House member Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain Roy Blunt won't run for Senate seat in 2022 MORE (R-Tenn.) responded that Tillerson had called him to discuss those sanctions at the time.

Democrats pounced, citing forms from Exxon where the company disclosed lobbying on the sanctions. They accused Tillerson of trying to mislead them about the issue. Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinSenators in the dark on parliamentarian's decision When it comes to the Iran nuclear deal, what's a moderate Democrat to do? Battle lines drawn on Biden's infrastructure plan MORE (Md.), the panel’s top Democrat, even displayed some of the lobbying forms at the hearing.

Tillerson later conceded that he had asked the State Department for leniency on when the sanctions would be applied, arguing that it would have been a risk to the environment and ExxonMobil employees if it immediately withdrew from a well-digging project in Russia.

Later, pressed on Exxon documents showing it lobbying on sanctions bills in Congress, Tillerson claimed to not know whether the company was in favor or against the measures.

“I know you weren't lobbying for the sanctions," Menendez replied.

Connecticut Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyWe need laws to stop gun violence, but we need to stop glorifying it, too Senators in the dark on parliamentarian's decision Democratic senators call on Biden to support waiving vaccine patents MORE blasted Tillerson’s explanation as a “distinction without a difference.”

Democrats had already been spoiling for a fight over Tillerson, citing his ties to Russia at Exxon Mobil, and they were quick to cast doubt on the nominee Wednesday.

“Rex Tillerson's hearing is troubling. He declined to commit to maintaining the existing sanctions regime against Russia or to new sanctions,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerOn The Money: Yellen touts 'whole-of-economy' plan to fight climate change | Senate GOP adopts symbolic earmark ban, digs in on debt limit Hillicon Valley: Tech companies duke it out at Senate hearing | Seven House Republicans vow to reject donations from Big Tech Lawmakers reintroduce bill to invest billions to compete with China in tech MORE (D-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter.

“Despite disclosures from Exxon documenting work in lobbying against Iran Sanctions, Tillerson says Exxon did not lobby to his knowledge. Tillerson hearing raises real questions as to whether PEOTUS & cabinet are prepared to stand up to Putin, Iran & represent US interests.”

But Corker, who had been considered as a finalist for Trump’s State Department slot, repeatedly came to Tillerson’s defense throughout the day, offering clarifications and explanations on the issue of sanctions.

Tillerson’s rocky hearing contrasted with those for other Trump nominees.

Elaine Chao, Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Transportation, enjoyed a breezy, three-hour confirmation hearing on Wednesday, joking with senators and winning praise even from some Democrats.

Though Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsDOJ to probe Minneapolis police Garland rescinds Trump-era memo curtailing consent decrees Biden picks vocal Trump critics to lead immigration agencies MORE (R-Ala.) faced a lengthy, politically charged attorney general confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Republicans appeared to remain resolutely behind him, likely clearing the way for his eventual confirmation.

Tillerson’s hearing was different. He sought to cast himself as a moderate on several issues, breaking with Trump on trade, a registry of Muslims in the United States and international climate agreements. But Democrats found little to like in his answers, and none indicated his or her support for Tillerson.

If Rubio opposes Tillerson’s nomination — he did not commit one way or the other on Wednesday — and Democrats unite against him, the Foreign Relations Committee will be deadlocked on whether to recommend him. In that scenario, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellWhen it comes to Georgia's voting law, keep politics out of business Pelosi to offer even split on 9/11-style commission to probe Capitol riot Senate GOP crafts outlines for infrastructure counter proposal MORE (R-Ky.) would have the option of bypassing the committee and bringing the nomination straight to the floor.

Tillerson is scheduled to return to the Foreign Services Committee on Thursday, giving his opponents another chance to question his views.

Tillerson’s supporters looked to provide cover for him on Wednesday. During his Wednesday press conference, Trump said he had watched Tillerson’s performance earlier in the day and “I think it’s brilliant what he’s doing and what he’s saying.”

Corker called Tillerson an “inspired choice,” and predicted he would “rise to the occasion.” Late in the hearing, he offered Tillerson a lifeline on sanctions, summarizing his opinion as “just ensuring that when they’re implemented, they’re implemented in an appropriate way.”

Texas’s two senators promoted him as well, praising his decades of work at ExxonMobil.

“The depth and breadth of his experience as an accomplished and successful business leader and a skilled negotiator give him a solid understanding of our current economic and political challenges, making him uniquely qualified,” Sen. John CornynJohn CornynCornyn, Sinema to introduce bill aimed at addressing border surge Bipartisan group of senators holds immigration talks amid border surge House votes to extend ban on fentanyl-like substances MORE (R-Texas) said.