RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Later today in New York, President-elect Donald Trump holds his first press conference since winning office. And there are a whole lot of questions that have come up even in the last 24 hours. Last night, documents came to light which point to potentially compromising but still unverified links between Russia, its intelligence services and the president-elect. Donald Trump on Twitter called the documents fake news and a political witch hunt.
Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona joins us now on the line. Senator, thanks for being with us.
JEFF FLAKE: Hey, thanks for having me on.
MARTIN: Let's start with these unverified documents alleging links between Donald Trump and Russia. Have you seen them?
FLAKE: Well, I looked on BuzzFeed at them, but I think we ought to treat them as you just presented them - unverified documents. And it seems that a few of the items have already been disproven. So we'll see where it goes from here. But as now, it's unverified.
MARTIN: These documents and its contents, though, have been circulating on Capitol Hill since at least December. What questions do they raise for you?
FLAKE: Well, like I said, they're unverified. There's a lot of information out there. There was during the campaign. There will continue to be in this era of fake news and whatnot. It's - you shouldn't take things at face value when they're simply released. And so I think we ought to wait. Donald Trump will have a press conference today, and my guess is he'll address some of this.
MARTIN: In the press conference, besides the big press conference today, I should say, there's a big confirmation hearing happening. Donald Trump's choice for secretary of state has his hearing on the Hill, Rex Tillerson. Former CEO of ExxonMobil, he has had his own close relationship with Russian officials over the years. You will be among those asking Rex Tillerson questions today. Is that something you intend to ask him about?
FLAKE: Oh, long before it gets to me on the dais, it will be asked, I'm sure. If there are unanswered questions, I'll ask them. I've had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Tillerson on the phone as well as meet with him in my office, and I'll continue the discussion in the hearing.
But obviously people will be asking about his experience with Russia. It would be strange if the former CEO and chairman of ExxonMobil did not have dealings with Russia. But obviously the question is, will he be able to put that aside - the role he played, you know, heading a major energy company - and instead being secretary of state.
MARTIN: You said you sat down with Rex Tillerson. What was he like? What were those conversations like?
FLAKE: Well, I was impressed certainly with his knowledge of what's going on around the world and, you know, gratified by his willingness to serve. We need knowledgeable people who are willing to serve in our government.
And so anybody who'd subject themselves to (laughter) hearings like will happen today and this process - that's a good thing. And I obviously think that we ought to ask pointed questions and certainly see where he is on these issues. But I'm glad he's willing to serve.
MARTIN: Of course a former CEO of a major multibillion-dollar global company with extensive ties in Russia - in the context of the larger questions about the Trump administration - incoming administration and its connections to Russia, does that give you any pause, or do you see those relationships that Rex Tillerson might have as being advantageous?
FLAKE: Well, it certainly makes questions that are asked about Russia that much more important. But I don't think that, you know, having ties with Russia as a businessman is disqualifying at all, and it can be useful.
I think Henry Kissinger said as much a while ago, that certainly you want somebody who's knowledgeable about Russian system, about the government's motives. And that can be put to good use in terms of our own national interest. But I think questions certainly ought to be asked, and I'm sure he'll have answers for them.
MARTIN: When Tillerson was at ExxonMobil, the company made deals that sometimes ran counter to official U.S. policy and sanctions, in particular, going through third parties to work with Iran and Sudan. What does Mr. Tillerson need to say to assure you that he will put U.S. interests first?
FLAKE: Well, I think what he has told senators like myself and others that he does have experience around the world, he does have experience brokering deals with governments and individuals and that he put those skills to good use as chairman of ExxonMobil - and he'll now use those skills to better our situation in the world and in our own national interest. I think that's what we'll hear from him.
MARTIN: Jeff Flake - he's a Republican senator from Arizona. He will be asking questions to Rex Tillerson, who has been nominated to become the next U.S. secretary of state by the president-elect. Senator Flake, thank you so much for your time this morning.
FLAKE: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.