Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) pulled no punches during Wednesday’s Secretary of State confirmation hearing for Exxon Mobile CEO Rex Tillerson when he confronted Tillerson over his seemingly cozy relationship with Russia.
Following a series of questions on Russian hacking and interference in the election, Rubio demanded to know whether Tillerson believed Russian President Vladimir Putin is a war criminal.
Tillerson said “I would not use that term” when asked.
“Well let me describe the situation in Aleppo and perhaps that will help you reach that conclusion” Rubio started. From there, the senator spoke of the various Russian bombs and airstrikes in the war-torn city. Rubio mentioned Putin’s decisions to direct attacks against “schools, markets, and other civilian infrastructure.”
Rubio also pointed out that the Syrian civil war was not the first time Putin has been part of such interventions, speaking of civilian bombings in Chechnya. And he did not stop there. “If you want to know the motivation, here’s what it is. Putin’s approval ratings before the attacks against the Chechnyans were at 31%. By mid-August of that year, it’s at 78% in just three months,” he said.
Rubio asked if Tillerson was prepared to say that both Putin and the Russian military under his direction “violated the rules of war and have conducted war crimes in Aleppo.”
“Those are very, very serious charges to make, and I would want to have much more information before reaching a conclusion,” Tillerson replied. He suggested that Rubio’s information might be found in the classified domain. Rubio quickly reminded him that these acts were for public consumption.
From there, Rubio questioned Tillerson on the death of various political dissidents. He asked the chairman to enter two things into the record. The first was a partial list of political dissidents, journalists, and critics of Vladimir Putin who were suspiciously murdered or died under highly suspicious circumstances. The second was a letter from the mysteriously poisoned Alexander Litvinenko, who implicated Putin just before his death.
“Mr. Tillerson, do you believe that Vladimir Putin and his cronies are responsible for ordering the murder of countless dissidents, journalists, and political opponents?” Rubio asked.
Tillerson said that he did not have sufficient enough information to make a decision.
Rubio asked Tillerson, “Are you aware that people who oppose Vladimir Putin wind up dead all over the world, poisoned, and shot in the back of the head? Do you think that was coincidental or that it is quite possible, or likely as I believe, that they were part of an effort to murder his political opponents?”
“People who speak up in regimes that are repressive are often a threat, and these things happen to them,” Tillerson replied. However, he added that he would need further information before assigning “specific responsibilities.”
Rubio himself has been very vocal about Russian influence in the election. He joined colleagues like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in demanding an investigation into the claims as well as actions against Russia in response to the findings.