Former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson was confirmed by the Senate to become the chief diplomat for the United States in a 56 to 43 vote, one of the most contentious selections in recent history. Tillerson was narrowly approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in an 11-10 vote last month.
Tillerson came under bipartisan scrutiny during the nomination process because of his past ties to Vladimir Putin. In 2013, Putin awarded the Russian Order of Friendship to Tillerson after signing agreements with the state-owned Russian oil company Rosneft. This partnership was placed on hold after the United States imposed sanctions on Russia, following its invasion of Ukraine. Lobbying records reveal that Exxon spent over $300,000 to make its case on the sanctions. Tillerson was a critic of the 2014 sanctions, labeling them as ineffective, and personally visited the White House and Treasury Department when they were under consideration. Even recently, Exxon successfully lobbied to defeat the STAND for Ukraine Act.
Nevertheless, after private meetings and public testimony, Republican members on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee felt confident in Tillerson and unanimously voted in favor of his nomination, including Senators John McCain, Graham and Rubio.
On Russia, Tillerson spoke cautiously and argued that he would advocate maintaining current sanctions on Russia.
“[The United States must] be clear-eyed about our relationship with Russia. Russia today poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests. It has invaded Ukraine, including the taking of Crimea, and supported Syrian forces that brutally violate the laws of war. Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia,” Tillerson said in an opening statement. “Where cooperation with Russia based on common interests is possible, such as reducing the global threat of terrorism, we ought to explore these options. Where important differences remain, we should be steadfast in defending the interests of America and her allies. Russia must know that we will be accountable to our commitments and those of our allies, and that Russia must be held to account for its actions.”
In an exchange with Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Tillerson clarified his commitment to the U.S. obligation to defend her allies. This is a break from President Trump, who has labeled NATO as obsolete, and suggested that he would default on our commitments to pressure allies into paying the United States.
Senator Portman: Just to be clear, I know there was some discussion about NATO earlier, particularly Article V, which reads ‘an armed attack against one or more members shall be considered an attack against them all.’ Can you clarify that you believe Article V creates a binding obligation to assist any member of the alliance that is a victim of aggression regardless of their size or geographic location?
Rex Tillerson: Yes, sir, I do.
Senator Portman: And as secretary of state, would you ever threaten to break the U.S. commitment to Article V as a means of pressuring allies to spend more on defense?
Rex Tillerson: I would not recommend that, no, sir.
Ranking Member Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) voted against Tillerson’s nomination during the committee process, as did all other Democratic members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“I am concerned as to whether Mr. Tillerson would counsel President Trump to keep current sanctions in place – which includes leading our European allies in this most important of endeavors. He showed little interest in advancing the new Russia sanctions legislation I’ve introduced with Senator McCain and colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Russia attacked us through cyber warfare and has committed even greater atrocities in Ukraine, Syria, and Eastern Europe. They must be held accountable and our bipartisan legislation is an important tool to do so,” Senator Cardin said in a statement.