Vladimir Putin was the 800-pound gorilla in Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing

No more on Putin.
No more on Putin.
Image: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
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As expected, the confirmation hearing for Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state, has generated the most heat of that for any nominee in the incoming US president’s cabinet.

But while the hostility in Tillerson’s hearing today (Jan. 11) was as palpable as predicted, senators only rarely aimed it at the former ExxonMobil chairman himself. Instead, their target was almost exclusively Russian president Vladimir Putin, whom they called a war criminal, a murderer, a cyber threat, and also a generic danger to the world order.

Tillerson acknowledged that he understood their reservations about Putin, but said that, even so, the US must figure out how to deal with him. He went on to duck, dodge, and parry as the rocks and spears kept coming.

As she questioned Tillerson, senator Jeanne Shaheen had a photograph taped on the wall behind her of Alexander Livinenko, the KGB defector who was murdered in London in 2006. He was poisoned with polonium 210, a nuclear isotope, and a UK judge concluded earlier this year that Putin ordered the killing. There was also a photo of Sergei Magnitsky, a whistleblower lawyer who died in a Russian prison in 2008.

Shaheen used the props as context for a question about whether the Trump administration plans to—as it has suggested—lift sanctions on Russia and Putin’s allies. Tillerson replied cooly that the sanctions will remain in place at the start of the administration as a signal to Russia that “this can go either way,” meaning a better bilateral relationship with the US.

Tillerson seemed detached on the subject of murder throughout the hearing. When senator Marco Rubio asked if he thinks Putin is responsible for the murder of political opponents, Tillerson replied that political dissidents, wherever they are, “these things happen to them.”

In any case, Tillerson seemed fully prepared to understand Putin. As for China, not so much.

He lashed out at China, which “steals our intellectual property.” It has failed to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, he said. “We have to deal with what we see, not what he hope,” Tillerson said of China.

But on Russia, he suggested that, where there have been excesses, it is the fault of Trump’s predecessors in Washington. Russia got the wrong signals because president Barack Obama had “backtracked” on obligations to allies, apparently referring to complaints by some countries that Obama has been less loyal to them than the US had once been. Obama had misled Putin by failing to follow up on threats to bomb Syria if it used chemical weapons again. “We did not recognize that Russia doesn’t think like we do,” Tillerson said.

When it comes to Russia, Tillerson said, in an extremely unTrumpian depiction, he plans to emulate Teddy Roosevelt. He would “walk softly and carry a big stick.”