Trump’s State pick could trigger Senate showdown
President-elect Donald Trump’s likely choice for secretary of State is facing deep skepticism in the Senate over what are perceived to be his extraordinarily close ties to Russia.
The expected selection of Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson is already stirring a backlash on Capitol Hill, with members of both parties wary of what his presence in the administration might mean for Trump’s foreign policy.
Over the course of his more than four decades at Exxon, Tillerson has repeatedly done business with Russia, developing a close relationship with President Vladimir Putin and his government.
Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the panel that would be responsible for vetting the State Department nomination, appear divided over whether Tillerson’s ties to Russia pose a problem.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the committee, signaled he’s open to supporting the Exxon executive, calling him an “impressive individual.”
But Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on Twitter on Sunday that being “ ‘a friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from” the next secretary of State.
Democrats are already sounding the alarm about Tillerson’s ties to Putin, though they’ve stopped short of pledging to outright block his nomination.
“If Tillerson is the [nominee], I look forward to a meeting & hearing process. But anyone who has opposed our Russia sanctions is problematic,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the committee, said Monday.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said he is “deeply concerned” about the nomination, while Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) called the pick “alarming and absurd.”
“The role of secretary of State should not be bestowed upon someone whose only notable experience with foreign governments involve multimillion dollar deals with Russia,” Menendez added.
The Foreign Relations Committee now has nine Democrats. If all nine of them opposed Tillerson and Rubio joined them, Senate leadership would have to break with committee to bring the nomination to the floor, which would be unusual for a job as important as secretary of State.
Even if Tillerson cleared the committee, he could have an uphill fight on the Senate floor.
Republicans will likely have a 52-seat majority, leaving Trump with little room for error. Three Republican defections could potentially doom any of his Cabinet nominees, if Democrats are united against them.
The margin may become even narrower if Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, abstains from all confirmation votes, as some Democrats have urged him to do. The Alabama Republican has given no indication he plans to follow their advice.
GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), critics of Russia who aren’t members of the Foreign Relations panel, have also signaled they have concerns about Tillerson.
“It is a matter of concern to me that he has such a close personal relationship with Vladimir Putin,” McCain said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “And, obviously, they have done enormous deals together that would color his approach to Vladimir Putin and the Russian threat.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sidestepped weighing in on Tillerson Monday, calling him a “phantom nominee.”
“We’ll have to wait and see who is nominated for secretary of State,” he said. “They’ll go through the regular process and we’ll see where it comes out.”
But the Kentucky Republican, known for being tight-lipped, signaled he wants the Trump’s administration to treat Moscow with caution.
“I hope that those who are going to be in a position of responsibility in the new administration share my views,” he said. “The Russians are not our friends. … I think we ought to approach all of these issues on the assumption that the Russians do not wish us well.”
Tillerson’s likely nomination is roiling the long-running debate about how the United States should handle Russia and its increasingly aggressive posture in Syria and Eastern Europe.
Trump has denied being close personally to Putin, but has repeatedly said he would get along with the Russian leader as president.
Wary of such statements, senators are pledging to take a harder line against Russia next year, setting up a conflict with the incoming administration.
Cardin told reporters Saturday morning after the Senate’s final vote that he is “ironing out” legislation with Republicans to push back on Russia.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Tillerson would have ties to Moscow, as Russia is among the world’s largest oil producers. The Exxon chief has met personally with Putin on several occasions, according to the Kremlin.
Moscow awarded Tillerson the “Order of Friendship” in 2013 after a deal benefitting Exxon’s access to certain Arctic resources and state-controlled oil giant Rosneft. That is considered the country’s highest honor for a non-civilian.
On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov praised Tillerson as someone who “fulfills his responsibilities in a highly professional manner.”
Trump, meanwhile, has called Tillerson a “world-class player” and a “dealmaker,” seemingly drawing parallels to his own history in real estate.
“We look at it as an asset, not a liability in that it’s not that he’s hanging around with Vladimir Putin on the weekend at dinner parties,” said Kellyanne Conway, a close Trump advisor, on CBS’s “This Morning.”
“It’s that he understands Russia. He’s already doing business there,” she added.
Conway insisted the nomination is not final, adding that Trump will likely announce his selection midweek.
Yet some within Trump’s orbit see the possible selection as a further indication of the president-elect’s intention to bring the U.S. and Russia closer together.
Tillerson’s nomination “will represent a dramatic improvement in America’s approach to the world,” said former Trump advisor Carter Page, who left the Republican’s team earlier this year under the shadow of a federal investigation for his ties to Russia, according to the Kremlin-backed Sputnik News.
“The U.S. and Russia still have 99 problems to address at home and around the world,” Page added. “But this marks the start of a new era where they can now work on them together, instead of remaining consistently obstructed by a long history of toxic personal relationships.”
A full embrace of Russia would be a major change in the U.S. relationship with its Cold War archenemy.
President Obama notably pushed for a “reset” with Russia early in his tenure, but that effort proved short-lived.
The U.S.-Russia relationship deteriorated rapidly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and was further strained by Russia’s support for embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Russian government also engaged in an exhaustive cyber campaign to destabilize the U.S. political system this year, which the CIA reportedly has determined was orchestrated to explicitly to boost Trump’s campaign.
Trump has dismissed the reporting and cast doubts on the CIA’s findings.