Confirmation hearing underway for former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson

By Abby Livingston

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

WASHINGTON — Former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson took center stage amid a politically roiling capital on Wednesday, as he sought Senate confirmation to become U.S. Secretary of State.

The Texas native and Trump nominee appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as President-elect Trump's ties with Russia continue to be on the forefront of many minds in Washington.  

The Tillerson hearing was one of the most anticipated questioning rounds with a Trump nominee, thanks to the former oil executive's ties to Russia and ongoing controversies and questions about Trump's own relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.  

Upon Senate confirmation as the country’s top diplomat, Tillerson would have to negotiate the political fallout of a topic that has the potential to roil the Congress and the Trump administration.

Tillerson drew effusive support from his home state delegation, U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz. Both men introduced Tillerson to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as is the custom in such hearings.

"The depth and breadth of his experience as an accomplished and successful business leader and skilled negotiator give him a solid understanding of our current geopolitical and economic challengers, making him uniquely qualified to serve in this important office," Cornyn said.

"Rex Tillerson is a serious man who understands the value of perseverance,” Cruz concurred. "We need a secretary of state who understands that America is exceptional, who will establish policies upon that foundation of exceptionalism and who will put America's interest first."

Neither Texas senator serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and therefore did not participate in Wednesday’s hearing.

Tillerson is expected to face difficult questioning from Democrats on the committee, particularly regarding his business relationships with autocratic governments like Russia.

"We must ... be clear eyed about our relationship with Russia. Russia today poses a danger, but it not unpredictable in advancing its own interests," Tillerson said in his opening remarks.

"Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia, but it was in the absence of American leadership that this door was left open and unintended signals were sent," he added, criticizing President Obama's handling of the Syrian conflict.

"We backtracked on commitments to allies. We sent weak or mixed signals, with red lines that turned into green lights."

However, Tillerson faced brutal questioning from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who hammered the businessman with queries on Russia, that country's influence in the 2016 election and the Syrian conflict and its handling of dissidents.

Rubio repeatedly asked TIllerson if Putin is a war criminal, citing Syria.

"Those are very, very serious charges to make," Tillerson answered. "And I would want to have much more information before reaching a conclusion."

"I understand there is a body of record in the public domain," Tillerson added. "I'm sure there's a body of record in the classified domain, and I think in order to deal with a serious question like this, I would want to be fully informed before advising the president."

The answer did not satisfy Rubio, who could be a pivotal vote in whether Tillerson clears confirmation.

"It should not be be hard to say that Vladimir Putin's military has conducted war crimes in Aleppo, because it is never acceptable, you would agree, for a military to specifically target civilians which is whats happened through the Russian military," Rubio said.

"I find it discouraging, your inability to cite that, which I think is globally accepted," he added.

Amid questioning from U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, Tillerson said he had not yet had in-depth conversations with Trump on Russia.

Instead, he characterized their conversations "in a broad construct and in terms of the principles that are going to guide" the Trump administration's foreign policy worldview.

"I would have thought Russia would be at the very top of that, considering all of the actions that have taken place," Menendez said. "Did that not happen?

"That has not occurred yet, senator," Tillerson responded.

"That's pretty amazing," Menendez responded.

Tillerson's hearings could extend into Thursday. He is expected to face further difficult questioning from Democrats on the committee.

A confirmation hearing date for Tillerson’s fellow Texan tapped for Trump's cabinet, former Gov. Rick Perry, has yet to be scheduled.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune. 

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