Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin probed Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson about his reported ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin Wednesday during Tillerson’s confirmation hearing.
In his opening statement, Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed concern over President-elect Donald Trump’s stated position on Russia and about the man he chose to lead the State Department.
“We need to stand up to this bully in Moscow and increase the cost for his behavior,” Cardin said, alleging that Russia’s “nefarious activities have reached our shores” through their reported efforts to influence the American election.
American intelligence agencies, he said, have found that Putin and the Kremlin sought to get Trump elected president. “I’m not saying that Russia’s efforts were decisive in our election outcome — that’s not the point — the point is that we, the United States, were victims of a cyberattack of our democratic process,” Cardin said.
The senator also referred to “recent news accounts” that indicate “Russia may well have information about Mr. Trump.”
CNN recently reported that Russian operatives claim to have “compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump” and that both Trump and President Barack Obama have been briefed on the allegations. Buzzfeed published an unverified document detailing those allegations in full.
According to CNN, the former CEO of ExxonMobil “claims close ties” to Putin since he oversaw “the company's partnership with a state-owned energy giant there, work that earned him the country's highest award for non-citizens.”
In his prepared opening remarks, Tillerson appeared to back Trump’s desire for a friendlier relationship with Russia while arguing that the United States should be "clear-eyed" about the country.
Tillerson noted that Russia “has invaded Ukraine, including the taking of Crimea, and supported Syrian forces that brutally violate the laws of war" and that "our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia."
He further argued that the Obama administration contributed to Russia’s behavior:
It was in the absence of American leadership that this door was left open and unintended signals were sent. We backtracked on commitments we made to allies. We sent weak or mixed signals with ‘red lines’ that turned into green lights.
USA Today reported that several Republican senators have also expressed concern about Tillerson's ties to Russia.