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Senator Graham says he's supporting Rex Tillerson nomination

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) said Sunday that he is voting for ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state -- and that despite his initial concerns about Tillerson, he’s confident he agrees with him on the U.S.’ role in the world.

“In my office visit he said that when America doesn’t lead other people will and the vacuum is always filled by bad actors,” Graham said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “He said that we have to have a foreign policy that engages the world, we need to lead from the front.”

Graham and Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) released a joint statement Sunday morning announcing their support for Tillerson’s nomination, a move that makes it more likely that Tillerson will be confirmed. Both had previously expressed concern about Tillerson’s close ties to Russia.

 Graham, talking about the foreign policy challenges facing Mr. Trump’s new administration, had a message for him when it comes to dealing with Russia: don’t be weak.

“Beware of the teddy bear, President Trump,” Graham  “Putin will change his tone, he’ll be cajoling, but he still has the same interests at heart. If we don’t punish Russia for what they did in our election, then Iran and China could come in to the next election.”

Graham said Mr. Trump’s stance toward Russia will send a message to the world about how the United States deals with countries that

“People are watching us -- don’t be weak when it comes to Russia,” Graham said to Mr. Trump. “It didn’t work on Obama’s watch, and it won’t work on your watch.”

He said that if a vote were held on additional sanctions against Russia, he expected at least 75 of 100 U.S. senators would vote for it -- and added that the issue of Russia sanctions could be “the biggest conflict, potentially, between the Congress and the president.”

He said he was somewhat confused by Mr. Trump’s use of “America First” in his inaugural address, saying he’s not clear what Mr. Trump means by it.

“If ‘America First’ is a throwback to the [1920s] and 30s isolationism when it was first used as a phrase, the world will deteriorate even quicker,” he said. “If it is a new way of Ronald Reagan ‘Peace through strength,’ I’d like to work with you. I don’t know what ‘America First’ means.”

Graham urged Mr. Trump not to summarily cut foreign aid, saying it’s more effective in combating terrorism than using weapons and warfare.

“You want to destroy radical Islam, Mr. President, you will never do it by taking soft power off the table,” he said. “You cannot kill enough terrorists, you cannot drop enough bombs ...  building a small schoolhouse for a poor young girl in Afghanistan, Syria or Iraq will do more damage to radical Islam than any bomb you could drop.”

As for Mr. Trump’s comments railing against the establishment, Graham acknowledged that Congress isn’t exactly popular right now -- and that he’s willing to work with the new president to improve Americans’ trust in political institutions.

“Here’s the way I see the country in January 2017: we’re divided about how to move forward as a nation, but we’re united that the institutions of government and the private sector no longer serve us well,” he said, adding that people who don’t understand that are “missing the point of Trump’s election.”

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