President Trump’s nomination of Rex W. Tillerson as secretary of state was favorably approved Monday afternoon in a roll call vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, after Republican committee holdout Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida withdrew his objections. The former ExxonMobil Corp. chief was expected to be confirmed easily by the GOP-led Senate.
The vote divided along party lines, and the defection of even one GOP committee member could have denied Tillerson the committee’s favorable recommendation. Because of severe weather which delayed the arrival of some members by the meeting’s start at 4:30 p.m. EST, Chairman Bob Corker conducted a roll call vote, which affirmed Tillerson. However, the meeting was kept open to allow those members unable to attend to issue comments later in the evening.
Rubio was considered the lone Republican hold-out on the committee following some of the most contentious questioning during Tillerson's confirmation hearing this month.
Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and John McCain (R-AZ), neither of whom serve on the committee but who hold sway in the Senate, voiced their approval over the weekend. In a joint statement they said Tillerson told them privately this month he would be a "champion for a strong and engaged role for America in the world."
Rubio joined his Senate colleagues early Monday and threw his support behind President Trump’s nominee.
"Given the uncertainty that exists both at home and abroad about the direction of our foreign policy, it would be against our national interests to have this confirmation unnecessarily delayed or embroiled in controversy," Rubio said. "Therefore, despite my reservations, I will support Mr. Tillerson's nomination in committee and in the full Senate."
In throwing his support to Tillerson, Rubio voiced some concerns.
"I have no doubts about Mr. Tillerson's qualifications and patriotism," he said. "He has an impressive record of leadership and the proven ability to manage a large and complex organization. What I focused on from the beginning is whether as secretary of state he will make the defense of liberty, democracy and human rights a priority. I was encouraged by a number of his answers throughout this process," including Tillerson's acknowledgement that Russia "conducted a campaign of active measures designed to undermine our elections. He stated that Russia's taking of Crimea was illegal and illegitimate...
"However, his answers on a number of other important questions were troubling...Despite his extensive experience in Russia and his personal relationship with many of its leaders, he claimed he did not have sufficient information to determine whether Putin and his cronies were responsible for ordering the murder of countless dissidents, journalists and political opponents.
He indicated he would support sanctions on Putin for meddling in our elections only if they met the impossible condition that they not affect U.S. businesses operating in Russia.
“While he stated that the 'status quo' should be maintained for now on sanctions put in place following Putin's illegal taking of Crimea, he was unwilling to firmly commit to maintaining them so long as Russia continues to occupy Crimea and eastern Ukraine..."
Tillerson, who worked for ExxonMobil for 41 years, "is likely to have a potentially unprecedented level of influence over the direction of our foreign policy," Rubio said. "I remain concerned that in the years to come, our country will not give the defense of democracy and human rights the priority they deserve, and will pursue a foreign policy that too often sets aside our values and our historic alliances in pursuit of flawed geopolitical deals.
"But in making my decision on his nomination, I must balance these concerns with his extensive experience and success in international commerce, and my belief that the president is entitled to significant deference when it comes to his choices for the cabinet.
Given the uncertainty that exists both at home and abroad about the direction of our foreign policy, it would be against our national interests to have this confirmation unnecessarily delayed or embroiled in controversy. Therefore, despite my reservations, I will support Mr. Tillerson's nomination in committee and in the full Senate.
"However, upcoming appointments to critical posts in the Department of State are not entitled to and will not receive from me the same level of deference I have given this nomination."
Rubio, who battled Trump for the Republican nomination during the 2016 primaries, gave in with little protest, said Democratic National Committee senior adviser Zac Petkanas.
"By ignoring his serious reservations about Tillerson's connections to Vladimir Putin, Marco Rubio is not only rolling over for Donald Trump, he's earning the nickname Trump gave him: 'Little Marco,'" Petkanas said.
No Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee backed Tillerson. Ranking member Ben Cardin of Maryland said he could not support Tillerson because his "demonstrated business orientation and his responses to questions during the confirmation hearing could compromise his ability as secretary of state to forcefully promote the values and ideals that have defined our country and our leading role in the world for more than 200 years…
"The United States plays a unique and exceptional role in world affairs. Our values are our interests, as I said at Mr. Tillerson’s hearing. And our leadership in supporting democracy, universal human rights, unencumbered civil society, and unabridged press and religious freedoms is indispensable if these ideas and ideals are to be real and tangible in the world.
"Mr. Tillerson equivocated on these self-evident truths under direct questioning, repeatedly prioritizing narrow business interests ahead of these core national security interests. The power of the Secretary of State to call out wrong, to name and shame, and to fight each day on behalf of the American people and freedom-seeking people the world over is an enduring symbol to the oppressed and the vulnerable that the United States has their back."
Cardin said he also believed the committee was misled by Tillerson regarding his knowledge of ExxonMobil's lobbying on U.S. sanctions against Russia, as the company's "lobbying activities are well documented…” Tillerson's statements "are inconsistent with the company's well-known, long-held position and activities. This is why it is particularly concerning that Mr. Tillerson indicated during questioning that he was not willing to recuse himself from matters relevant to ExxonMobil for the entire duration of his term" instead of for only one year.
"Although I believe Mr. Tillerson is very sincere in his willingness to serve his country, and he has negotiating skills that are important for a diplomat, for the reasons I have articulated, I cannot support his nomination," Cardin said.
Liberal groups also criticized the nomination. 359.org pointed to the ongoing investigation by several state attorneys general into whether ExxonMobil may have hidden scientific research about how its operations impact the climate. Tillerson has said in several public forums, including annual meetings, that climate change is real. He also promised to recuse himself for one year, if confirmed as secretary of state, on matters directly related to his former employer.
"Sens. Rubio, Graham and McCain are handing the keys of our international climate diplomacy over to a rogue oil mogul," said 350.org U.S. policy director Jason Kowalski. "Even as Florida sinks, South Carolina is drenched by biblical-like floods, and Arizona hits record temperatures, these senators are caving under pressure from Trump. Our elected officials should be alarmed that Tillerson, who helmed a company that lied to the public for decades about climate change, could be in charge of our country’s foreign policy. This is the time to act boldly against corruption, not welcome it into the most senior federal positions in our country."