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Updated 11:05 PM  |  January 11, 2017

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Rubio pans Tillerson performance

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) suggested that Rex Tillerson’s refusal to label Russia’s president a war criminal or Saudi Arabia a human rights violator, he might have difficulty fulfilling all the duties of secretary of state.

Rubio stopped short of saying Tillerson’s answers disqualified him. But he showed no signs of warming to Tillerson’s nomination, which he has criticized since the pick was announced.

“My view is that the president deserves wide latitude in our nominations. But the more important the position is, the less latitude they have,” Rubio told reporters. “It’s like a cone: it’s really wide in some positions — as it gets higher and higher, the discretion becomes more limited and our scrutiny should become higher. And I consider [secretary of state] the highest of them all.”

Rubio grilled Tillerson during the hearing over his position on human rights because, he stressed, America has to stand for something and that it was the responsibility of the secretary of state – “the second most important position in the U.S. government, with all due respect to the vice-president” – to project the country’s image and standards abroad.

“If confirmed by the Senate and you run the department of state, you’re going to have to label countries and individuals all the time,” Rubio said. “When they see the United States is not prepared to stand up and [say], ‘Yes, Vladimir Putin is a war criminal, Saudi Arabia violates human rights…it demoralizes these people all over the world.”

He added that he had no questions about Tillerson’s character, or his personal commitment to serving his country.

“You didn’t need this job, you didn’t campaign for this job,” Rubio told Tillerson.

But he warned Tillerson that it was unacceptable not to take a stand on human-rights violations in places like like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the Philippines.

Tillerson denies lobbying against Russia sanctions as ExxonMobil chief

Rex Tillerson locked horns with senior Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over whether he and ExxonMobil had lobbied Congress and the Obama administration over economic sanctions.

Tillerson said he never lobbied on the issue and fumbled over whether ExxonMobil — where he is the former CEO — ever had. At one point he said that to the best of his memory, ExxonMobil had not done that.

Democrats on the committee produced lobbying records that show ExxonMobil said it was lobbying over various economic sanctions measures, including tough sanctions on Iran back in 2010 and more recently over sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) cited 14 such documents.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) held up four lobbying reports.

“In essence, Exxon became the in-house lobbyist for Russia against these sanctions,” Menendez said.

“I haven’t seen the form in your hands,” said Tillerson, who asked whether the forms showed Exxon lobbying for or against sanctions.  Menendez asked whether Tillerson could imagine the company actually lobbying in favor of sanctions.  Tillerson replied “I don’t know, senator, it would depend on the circumstances.”

The reports show that ExxonMobil’s Washington office was engaged in lobbying over sanctions. But Tillerson, in response to further questions from Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oreg), said  “ExxonMobil did not lobby against sanctions but [we] were engaged in how sanctions would be constructed.”

In a separate line of questioning with Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), Tillerson said that in response to sanctions over Iran, Exxon Mobil had tried to make sure U.S. and European Union sanctions on Iran were aligned. The European sanctions grandfathered in some existing European ventures in Iran whereas the U.S. sanctions were stricter. Tillerson said he spoke to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew about the issue.

But Democrats cited ExxonMobil’s membership in USA Engage, an advocacy group created in 2007 to lobby against sanctions. USA Engage lobbied for years against the imposition of tough sanctions on Iran, sanctions now credited with bringing Iran to the bargaining table over measures restricting its nuclear program.

“Let’s be clear,” ExxonMobil said on Twitter during the afternoon. “We engage with lawmakers to discuss sanction impacts, not whether or not sanctions should be imposed.”

In any case, what would this mean going forward? Tillerson said “sanctions are a powerful tool. Let’s design them well, let’s target them well and then, let’s enforce them fully.”

Tillerson says Mexico ‘long-standing friend’ of United States

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.),  noting “some of us care about the Western Hemisphere,” asked Tillerson if he thought that “Mexicans are criminals, drug dealers, rapists?”

“I would never characterize an entire population of people with any single term at all,” the nominee said. “Mexico is a long-standing friend and neighbor of this country.”

Trump himself had good things to say about Mexicans and their governments at his morning news conference. “Mexico has been so nice, so nice,” he said. “I respect the government of Mexico. I respect the people of Mexico. I love the people of Mexico. I have many people from Mexico working for me. They’re phenomenal people.”

While Mexico has “taken advantage of the United States,” he didn’t blame their government, Trump said. “The government of Mexico is terrific.

In many pre-election remarks, of course, Trump did blame the Mexican government for, as he famously said in announcing his candidacy in 2015, “not sending their best, and Mexicans were bringing drugs and crime and were rapists.”

Among repeated statements throughout the race, Trump said in the first Republican primary debate that “border control people” had told him what Mexican leaders were up to. “Our leaders are stupid…and the Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning, and they send the bad ones over because they don’t want to pay for them, they don’t want to take care of them.”

When Menendez asked whether such comments—which Trump has never repudiated but appeared to ignore during his press conference—would make his job as secretary of state more difficult, Tillerson ducked, saying,:

“We are going to engage with Mexico because of their importance to us in this hemisphere, and we have many, many common issues, common areas of concern.”

Tillerson says U.S. should have used other options in Crimea

Rex Tillerson said the United States should have employed a military response to Crimea to keep Russia from acting more aggressively in Ukraine.

“Clearly the sanctions that were put in place in response to Crimea did not deter them from entering Ukraine,” Tillerson said, adding that the U.S. response to Crimea “was less than the leadership of Russia thought they would encounter.”

“Sanctions were going to [be] insufficient to deter Russian leadership from taking the next step,” Tillerson added, suggesting that “there should have been a show of force, a military response, in defensive posture…to send a message that it stops here.”

But when challenged to clarify whether he would have committed U.S. troops to fight against Russian troops in Ukraine, Tillerson appeared to backpedal a bit, saying that a military response would not be “a first option.”

He explained he would have wanted a “Ukrainian military force supported by the U.S. providing them with capable, defensive weapons” to conduct the operation.

Tillerson: China’s moves in South China Sea comparable to Russia in Crimea

Rex Tillerson compared China’s establishment of outposts on reefs and islands in the South China Sea to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and vowed to take a tough posture on China’s moves there.

Tillerson said China’s efforts to lay claim to the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands were “illegal actions.”

“The island building in the South China Sea itself in many respects in my view is akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea,” he said, calling it the  “taking of territory others have laid claim to.”

He also said that U.S. diplomacy was partly to blame. “China’s activity in this area is extremely worrisome,” he said, adding that the lack of a vigorous response “has allowed them to keep pushing the envelope on this.”

The Obama administration has protested China’s actions in the South China Sea, urging Beijing to abide by an international arbitration process. The Obama administration has sent U.S. military vessels through international waters in the area.

But it has not taken other action.

Confirmation hearings, Trump speaks and vote-a-rama: analysis and updates

Wednesday is a particularly busy day in Washington with three Senate confirmation hearings for President-elect Trump’s appointees, a long-awaited Trump news conference and a Senate “vote-a-rama” on a budget resolution that could be the first step in repealing the Affordable Care Act.

Follow along here as Washington Post reporters add insight to Wednesday’s most important moments.