Democrats and some Republicans likely will make Rex W. Tillerson’s confirmation hearing tomorrow among the most contentious of the upcoming sessions for Cabinet members and other senior advisers. Tillerson is a polished man who is confident, like most chief executives, in his power to sway and charm. However, multiple sources with knowledge of the Tillerson sit-downs with senators suggest that he does not fully appreciate how aggressive the questioning will be. His generic answers on the importance of NATO and of managing the U.S.-Russia relationship will not suffice with foreign policy mavens on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Publicly, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has warned Tillerson that he will need to hear Tillerson acknowledge Russia’s responsibility for cyberwarfare designed to interfere with our presidential election and to confirm that he will push back against Russian aggression. He will lose Graham, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other Republicans if he, for example, cannot characterize Russia as an adversary or commit specifically to supporting sanctions.
Tillerson won’t get geography quiz questions (What’s the capital of Honduras?), nor should he (Tegucigalpa, by the way) because the secretary of state’s responsibilities include more than memorizing facts or knowing world leaders, for that matter. A simple question such as “What should be the goal of U.S.-Russia relations?” may trip him up. The answer is not “getting along” or “doing deals” and, frankly, his Exxon tenure may serve him poorly. He will need to understand and articulate the degree to which our interests do not align with Russia’s and how he intends to overcome or stanch Russian initiatives that conflict with decades-old, bipartisan objectives, including a whole and free Europe, stymieing Russian aggression in the Middle East and confronting Russia on human rights abuses. (Why, Mr. Tillerson, does President-elect Donald Trump never speak of “human rights” in the foreign policy context? Will he be silent and accede to Cuban, Russian, Chinese or Iranian — to name a few — abuses?)
A senior Democratic aide who spoke on background told me, “One thing really stuck out: The degree to which Tillerson recognizes the importance of holding Russia accountable for its actions — from the illegal annexation of Ukraine to supporting [Bashar al-]Assad’s bombing of Aleppo and more — bears almost no resemblance to what Trump has said about Russia.” He added, “So the question is whether he’s willing to say what he thinks in these public hearings, even if it doesn’t line up with what Trump says. It’s a perfect test case of whether he’s willing to disagree with the President-elect on tough issues.”
Let us be blunt: Many senators fear that Trump feels irrationally compelled to defer to Russian interests. Unless Tillerson can assure senators with some specifics that he will not pursue a policy of appeasement, senators should, and may very well, reject him. What are the “red line” questions that could make or break him, and for which hedging will be taken as a wrong, disqualifying answer? We put them in the form of yes or no queries, which would immediately clarify whether Tillerson will wash out:
- Did Russia hack the Democratic National Committee’s and John Podesta’s emails, “weaponize” what it found and allow WikiLeaks to circulate the emails so as to influence the U.S. election?
- Do you support sanctions against Russia for this conduct? For its invasion and occupation of Georgia and Ukraine? For human rights abuses at home? For war crimes in Syria?
- Is Article V of NATO inviolate?
- Is Russia’s conduct in Syria and contribution to genocide in America’s interest? Is it in America’s interest to allow Russia a military foothold in the Middle East?
- In the event we reactivate sanctions against Iran and Russia violates those, will you retaliate against Russia?
- Is it in our interest for Russia to be supporting Iran’s military?
- Is Russia a human rights abuser?
- Does Vladimir Putin engage in widespread corruption and direct or acquiesce in murders of journalists?
- Do you think we should recognize Russian annexation of parts of neighboring countries?
- Is RT a Russian propaganda outlet?
- Was Russian reset a good deal for the United States?
- Would a more conciliatory approach be taken as a sign of strength by Putin?
- Are Russian elections free and fair?
And those are only some of the questions — about a single country, Russia. Today, Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) will introduce legislation, which would, among other things, impose mandatory visa bans and asset freezes on those who undermine the cybersecurity of public or private infrastructure and democratic institutions; impose mandatory sanctions on those who materially assist, sponsor or provide financial, material or technological support for such activities; and impose mandatory sanctions on transactions with the Russian defense or intelligence sectors, including the FSB and GRU. Beyond that, the bill condemns Russian aggression in Georgia and Ukraine, imposes sanctions on Russia’s energy sector, bans investment in Russian privatization of state-owned assets and sales of sovereign debt and prohibits recognition of invaded territory as belonging to Russia. Moreover, the bill authorizes an extensive effort to expose Russian corruption and to uncover and prosecute networks responsible for illicit Russian financial flows.
Frankly, the senators should read each major provision to Tillerson and ask whether he would agree to support such measures. If not, he should be asked why and whether he has a better way to combat Russian misconduct.
We focus here on Russia, which has dominated the news lately, but there are equally critical questions on Cuba (Will Tillerson demand human rights improvements before sending an ambassador and lifting restrictions on commerce?) and Iraq (How do we prevent Iran from making it into a client state?) to China (What is Tillerson’s position on the South China Sea, and how do we defend international waters?). He better come prepared, for senators surely will.