Marco Rubio Dismantled Rex Tillerson And Now His Confirmation May Be In Trouble

A tough day for Trump’s Secretary of State nominee

A contentious nomination hearing has been expected for Rex Tillerson since President-elect Trump announced his nomination for Secretary of State in early December. With the cloud of Russian election interference and Trump’s unusual deference to Russia hanging over the nascent administration, Tillerson’s nomination came as a surprise. The former Exxon CEO, has extensive ties to Russia and he received a bipartisan grilling on the issue during today’s Senate hearing. Florida Republican Marco Rubio led the charge.

The former (and perhaps future) presidential candidate tore into Tillerson’s lack of “moral clarity” by pressing Tillerson on Vladimir Putin’s conduct in Syria and Chechnya. Rubio, citing well documented atrocities committed by the Russian military in Aleppo and Grozny, asked if Tillerson would characterize Putin as a war criminal. Tillerson demurred, saying that he “would not use that term.”

Rubio then pressed Tillerson on the assassinations of Russian dissidents and journalists. Again, Tillerson demurred. The 2013 recipient of Russia’s Order of Friendship attempted to sidestep the question by claiming he didn’t have enough information to form an opinion because he hadn’t been read-in to classified reports and doesn’t trust all mainstream media reports. Aghast, Rubio interjected:

“Mr. Tillerson, what’s happened in Aleppo is in the public domain… There is so much information out there about what happened in Aleppo, leaving the Chechen issue aside — what happened there is clearly documented as well. There’s so much information out there, it should not be hard to say Vladimir Putin’s military committed war crimes there.”

It didn’t end there. Later in the day, Rubio pressed Tillerson on the, again, well documented human rights violations committed in the Philippines and Saudi Arabia. Tillerson refused to label the states human rights violators. Rubio would have none of it. Tillerson opened his hearing by stressing the importance of a clear foreign policy from the United States. To Rubio, Tillerson’s evasiveness stood in stark contrast with what Tillerson had just advocated for. As transcribed by The Daily Beast:

“That’s why I asked you about whether Vladimir Putin was a war criminal, something you declined to label him as,” Rubio said in the hearing. “I asked about China, whether they were one of the worst human rights violators in the world… I asked about the killings in the Philippines. I asked about Saudi Arabia being a human rights violator, which you also declined to label them. The reason was not because I was trying to get you involved in the international game of name calling. But in order to have moral clarity, we need clarity. We can’t achieve moral clarity with rhetorical ambiguity.”

Facing additional heat from Democratic Senators Jeanne Shaheen, Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, Tillerson refused to rule out a Muslim registry, potentially perjured himself regarding Exxon’s lobbying against Russian sanctions, and at times, appeared woefully unprepared for the hearing and the important office he may soon hold.

By the end of the day, Rubio stood out as a fierce opponent to his own party’s nominee for Secretary of State. He holds enormous sway over the future of Tillerson’s nomination and in a post-hearing press gaggle, Rubio made it clear that he was undecided on the Republican President-elect’s choice. If Democrats stand unanimously against Tillerson (no sure bet), only three Republican defections would sink Tillerson’s nomination.

In addition to Rubio, Russia hawks Lindsay Graham and John McCain are the likeliest candidates for defection. Furthermore, as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a deadlock could leave Tillerson stuck in the committee in a state of purgatory.

Rubio, of course, is a partisan with ambitions for higher office and may very well end up casting a vote for Tillerson when all is said and done. If he does, it would be a remarkable reversal for a senator that just delivered the most thorough pasting a Trump nominee has received thus far.

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