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Lawmakers Grill Rex Tillerson About Russia During Confirmation Hearing For Secretary Of State

WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) --  Friend of Russia and foe of sanctions in his corporate life, President-elect Donald Trump's pick for secretary of state, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, faced lawmakers at his confirmation hearing Wednesday.

He spoke about a range of threats from China and North Korea, to radical Islam and Russia.

"Russia today poses a danger," he said.

Tillerson said America should explore options for cooperation with the Russians, like fighting terrorism, but said the United States needs to defend its interests and its allies where differences remain.

"Russia must know that we will be accountable to our commitments and those of our allies, and that Russia must be held to account for its actions," he said.

Tillerson spent four decades working around the world with Exxon Mobil, most recently as CEO, but Democrats, along with some Republicans, have expressed concerns about his direct relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"My pivot now, if confirmed to be secretary of state, will have one mission only, and that is to represent the interest of the American people," Tillerson said Wednesday.

He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that it's a "fair assumption'' Putin knew about Moscow's meddling in America's 2016 presidential election.

Tillerson said he's not privy to the detailed intelligence about Russia's hacking, but said he read the declassified report released last week about Russia's interference.

"That report clearly is troubling and indicates that all of the actions you just described were undertaken," he said.

In response to a question from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, he said he would not describe Putin as a "war criminal.''

Rubio said Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and bombing in Aleppo should not make it hard to say that Putin is responsible for war crimes.

Tillerson was also asked about Trump's tweeting and how that might affect his job as chief diplomat.

"Do you have in mind any contingency plans?" a Senator asked.

"Yes, I have his cellphone number, and he's promised me he'll answer," Tillerson replied.

Tillerson's nomination comes as a break in a longstanding tradition of secretaries of state with extensive military, legislative, political or diplomatic experience. Yet his supporters say the oil man's career at a mammoth multinational is proof he has the skills to succeed as America's top diplomat.

Meanwhile, confirmation hearings for attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, continued for a second day.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, broke with Senate tradition and testified against his colleague.

"Senator Sessions has not demonstrated a commitment to a central requisite of the job -- to aggressively pursue the congressional mandate of civil rights, equal rights, and justice for all of our citizens," Booker said.

However, the nominee had his defenders. Among them, was an attorney who worked alongside Sessions in Alabama for years.

"In my opinion, Jeff Sessions will enforce and follow the laws to the United States even-handedly, equally and with justice for all," Willie Huntley said.

Confirmation hearings also began Wednesday for Trump's nominee for transportation secretary, Elaine Chao.

The full Senate must vote on all of the president-elect's cabinet picks.

(TM and © Copyright 2017 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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