Former ExxonMobil Corp. Chairman Rex W. Tillerson was approved by the Senate on Wednesday to lead the State Department, becoming President Trump's top global diplomat.
Tillerson, who was approved by a vote of 54-44 to become the 69th secretary of state, was considered an unconventional choice to lead the most important Cabinet position as he has never held a public office. He now faces the task of carrying out Trump administration's foreign policy, which has in its two-week stead already drawn scorn not only by Democrats but U.S. business leaders and many foreign leaders, following a travel ban imposed last Friday.
In an executive order President Trump has suspended entry of all refugees to the United States for 120 days, barred Syrian refugees indefinitely, and blocked entry for 90 days for citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
Tillerson also has been scrutinized in his dealings with Russia, where ExxonMobil has extensive interests. The vote against Tillerson was the highest for any secretary of state since World War II, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). President George W. Bush's choice, Condoleeza Rice, was approved by an 85-13 vote, while Richard Nixon's selection Henry Kissinger was approved 78-7.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who supported Tillerson, said Russia is one area he expects the former oil executive to focus on.
"I would say the place that, if I were him, that I would want to be focused is my strategy on the Russia issue," Corker said. "I think as secretary of state he probably wants to make sure that he's developed his thinking on how to push back" on President Vladimir Putin.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who had criticized Tillerson during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, voted in favor of his confirmation in committee and again on Wednesday because the secretary of state "is the most important cabinet position that the president has to nominate." There is "so much uncertainty and debate" about the U.S. role in the world. A lot of our allies have questions. Our adversaries are obviously watching very closely."
Democrats led by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) had sought to delay the proceedings, but that attempt was blocked.
"This is all an advertisement for a very simple idea, that this is probably the absolute worst time to have the first American president with no government experience and no diplomatic experience pick the first secretary of state with no government experience and no diplomatic experience," said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT). Maryland Democrat Sen. Ben Cardin added, "We need, as the next secretary of state, a person who is going to be a leader in saying we are going to use every one of our diplomatic tools to isolate Russia if they continue this activity of interfering with our elections."
Activists blasted the vote.
"For years much of America's foreign policy was formulated to benefit the oil industry," 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben said. "Now it's being formulated by the oil industry. There's no disguising the influence any more, which should make it easier to understand and to resist."
350.org Executive Director May Boeve also weighed in. "A vote for Rex Tillerson is a vote for climate disaster. Negotiating oil deals with human-rights abusing heads of state does not qualify you to lead international diplomacy. The fight against Tillerson’s nomination revealed just how much fossil fuel industry money has corrupted Congress. In the face of this corruption, we all must come together to fight for the renewable energy revolution and an economy that works for all of us.”
Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica said, "Welcome to the United States of Exxon, where Big Oil no longer has to buy off the government because it now actually is the government. Rex Tillerson, the country’s chief oil baron, is now the country’s chief diplomat." The president and Tillerson "are cut from the same cloth -- driven by greed and devoid of a moral compass. Only a morally bankrupt president would want his secretary of state to be a man who made his career and his many millions off of vast human suffering, environmental destruction, and climate denial. And only morally bankrupt senators would vote to put him there."
The divided vote against Tillerson "shows that a significant number of legislators have grave concerns about Rex Tillerson’s ability to put the interests of the American people first," said UCS's Kathy Mulvey, climate accountability campaign manager. "Tillerson failed to explain how he would resolve potential conflicts of interest over the next four years and -- for all his talk about 'accountability' -- he evaded questions about ExxonMobil's positions and actions under his leadership."