WASHINGTON -- A top U.S. senator has suggested lawmakers should empower officials in Donald Trump’s administration whose views on Russia diverge sharply from those voiced by the president.
The statement by Bob Corker (Republican-Tennessee) during a February 9 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he chairs, comes amid mounting bipartisan concern in Congress that Trump could soften Washington’s approach toward Moscow and President Vladimir Putin.
Corker's remarks came after Senator Chris Murphy (Democrat-Connecticut) criticized what he called "conflicting messages" about Russia from the administration. Murphy pointed to Trump’s recent interview with Fox News in which he expressed skepticism about Russian support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
"In spite of the unfortunate statements that end up being made, I think there are folks within the administration that have a very, very different point of view, and I think us working with them to empower them to create policies that we would support is something that we can play a role in doing," Corker said.
Corker did not specify which officials or statements he was talking about. His spokesman, Chuck Harper, told RFE/RL that the remark "was general in nature."
Earlier in the hearing, which was devoted to Russia, Corker said he had "spent some time" with Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and "understanding the route he is planning to take to ratchet back what Russia is doing."
"I want to spend a little time making sure that what we do to strengthen his hand is appropriate, and I think you're going to see a very different type of activity towards Russia," Corker said.
In his confirmation hearing last month, Tillerson said Russia was backing separatists in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 9,750 people since April 2014. Russia denies it is providing such support, despite substantial evidence of its role in the conflict.
Corker also joined the committee’s ranking Democrat, Ben Cardin of Maryland, in criticizing comments made by Trump in the same Fox News interview after host Bill O'Reilly called Putin "a killer."
"There are a lot of killers. We've got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country's so innocent?" Trump said in the interview, broadcast February 5.
Corker told the hearing that he sees "no moral equivalence, none, between ourselves and the actions that Russia has taken" and that Trump’s comments do not reflect the views of "most members of the U.S. Senate."
The hearing was held one day after a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced legislation that would make it harder for Trump to lift sanctions against Russia that were imposed by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Those sanctions aimed to punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine and its alleged meddling in the American presidential election last year.
Trump, a Republican, has repeatedly said he wants to improve ties with Moscow, which have been badly strained over Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean territory, its backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine, and military activities in Syria.
Those comments have put him at odds with many lawmakers in his own party, who are largely hawkish on Russia.
But prominent members of Trump’s cabinet have said sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine should stay in place.
On February 2, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, expressed "strong condemnation of Russia's actions" in eastern Ukraine and said Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Moscow hands control of the Black Sea peninsula back to Ukraine.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer on February 8 referred to Haley’s comments when asked about the administration’s position.
Tillerson said in his confirmation hearing that the Ukraine-related sanctions should remain, suggesting they could be used as leverage in dealing with Moscow.
Tillerson, who publicly questioned the wisdom of the sanctions in his previous job as the CEO of ExxonMobil, dealt extensively with the Russian government during his tenure at the multinational oil giant.
During the February 9 hearing, Murphy expressed concern about the differences between Haley’s comments on Russia and Trump's to Fox News.
"One of the things that worry us is that we’re hearing conflicting messages from this administration about Russia," he said.
The hearing featured testimony from U.S. General Philip Breedlove, a former NATO supreme commander in Europe, and Julianne Smith, a former national security adviser to Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden.
Committee members delivered harsh criticism of Russia and Putin on issues ranging from Ukraine to hacking to human rights.