Report

Tillerson’s Confirmation Battle Will Be First Test for Trump’s Russia Ties

The Senate’s hawks -- and frequent Trump critics -- look to challenge the ExxonMobil CEO’s nomination to be secretary of state.

Exxon Mobil chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks at a discussion organized by the  Economic Club of Washington on the energy innovations that have led to a new era of energy abundance for North America in Washington, DC on March 12, 2015.   AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Exxon Mobil chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks at a discussion organized by the Economic Club of Washington on the energy innovations that have led to a new era of energy abundance for North America in Washington, DC on March 12, 2015. AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

In selecting ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his nominee for secretary of state Tuesday, President-elect Donald Trump is facing his first major test with Senate Republicans who are wary of his warming relations with Russia — and have warned his cabinet pick is far from assured.

Trump is betting Tillerson’s corporate management experience and support from former GOP statesmen will ease the concerns of a handful of Republican hawks over the oilman’s extensive business dealings with Moscow.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who lost the Republican presidential primary to Trump after being repeatedly belittled as “Little Marco,” said he had “serious doubts” about the nomination, and alluded to Exxon’s vast global assets.

“The next secretary of state must be someone who views the world with moral clarity, is free of potential conflicts of interest,” Rubio said in a Tuesday statement.

The Republicans’ slim 52-48 majority in the Senate doesn’t give Trump a lot of breathing room.

Rubio sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, which must first clear Tillerson’s nomination before a floor vote. Republicans outnumber Democrats on the panel by just one vote, making Rubio a critical power player if Democrats unanimously seek to block Tillerson’s nomination.

Democrats have already criticized Tillerson’s credentials, including Exxon’s opposition to greenhouse gas regulations, questioning of climate change science, and ties to abusive governments in Indonesia and Equatorial Guinea. 

The nomination also comes amid reports that the CIA has concluded that Russia interfered in the U.S. election in order to boost Trump’s chances over Hillary Clinton. Lawmakers in both parties have pledged to investigate the matter.

Four Republican senators who have needled Tillerson’s Russia ties — Rubio, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, James Lankford of Oklahoma, and Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain — are now the focus of an expected and concerted lobbying push by Trump’s allies and aides.

Graham, who also challenged Trump for the presidential nomination, called it “unnerving” that Tillerson received the Russian government’s Order of Friendship award in 2013. McCain, meanwhile, has openly questioned the Texas oilman’s loyalties.

“I don’t see how anybody could be a friend of this old-time KGB agent,” McCain told CNN Monday, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump, however, has a powerful ally in Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, whom the president-elect also reportedly considered for the role of top U.S. diplomat. In a statement, Corker called Tillerson “a very impressive individual [who] has an extraordinary working knowledge of the world.”

But the committee’s Democrats already are gearing up for a fight. Sen. Ben Cardin, the panel’s ranking Democrat, has said he’s “deeply troubled” by Tillerson’s “close personal ties with Vladimir Putin” and vocal opposition to U.S. sanctions against Russia following its annexation of Crimea. Those sanctions gummed up a few of Exxon’s largest deals in Russia, including a Siberia agreement with the state oil company potentially worth tens of billions of dollars.

Cardin — who said Tuesday he will give Tillerson a fair nomination hearing — is expected to drill down into the businessman’s views on Russia, Ukraine, and Exxon’s stance on global warming. And other Democrats have made clear they will call out Republicans for hypocrisy if Tillerson is easily approved after years of GOP lawmakers accusing the Obama administration of going soft on Putin.

“For years, I’ve listened to my Republican colleagues in the Senate eviscerate President Obama for being too weak on Russia,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in a statement. “No Republican who has called for a tougher line against Russia should ever be taken seriously again if they vote to put a Putin ally at the top of the State Department.”

Democratic attacks, however, must contend with a flood of support for Tillerson by GOP House and Senate leaders and elder statesmen, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and former Secretary of State James Baker.

Tillerson “would bring to the position vast knowledge, experience and success in dealing with dozens of governments and leaders in every corner of the world,” Gates said in a statement. “He is a person of great integrity whose only goal in office would be to protect and advance the interests of the United States.”

Critics were quick to point out that Baker is a partner at a law firm whose clients include Exxon and its Russian business partner, the Rosneft state oil company. Rice and Gates also have connections to Exxon through their consulting firm, Rice Hadley Gates.

But their names still resonated with some of Trump’s most prominent critics. “The fact that former Secretaries of State James Baker, Condoleezza Rice, and Robert Gates are recommending Mr. Tillerson carries considerable weight,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Tillerson’s nomination will also face a tough campaign from liberals and Democratic pressure groups active on climate change issues.

“He and other company executives led ExxonMobil in funding outside groups to create an illusion of scientific uncertainty around the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change,” Neera Tanden, president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said in a statement.

Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump promised to draw on top private sector talent to run the country, and on Tuesday said Tillerson’s skills are exactly what Foggy Bottom needs.

“His tenacity, broad experience and deep understanding of geopolitics make him an excellent choice for secretary of state,” Trump said in a statement. “Rex knows how to manage a global enterprise, which is crucial to running a successful State Department, and his relationships with leaders all over the world are second to none.”

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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