President-Elect Donald Trump will nominate ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be his Secretary of State. The pick of Tillerson could set up a difficult confirmation fight. Tillerson, an outsider with no governments experience, has been the focus of criticism from both the right and the left over his apparent closeness with the Russian government, and, specifically, with Russia’s President, Vladimir V. Putin. While Tillerson does seem to have insider backing from some in the GOP, he has already drawn criticism from both the right and the left.
Mr. Trump apparently went through a long list of potential Secretaries of State before settling on Mr. Tillerson. The high-profile nature of the search was often compared to Mr. Trump’s successful reality television show, The Apprentice. Names that were passed over by Mr. Trump include former GOP nominee Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani as well as major CEOs and military brass.
Mr. Tillerson, whose embracing of man-caused climate change, advocacy in favor of common core, and his work to open the Boy Scouts of America to gay scouts will likely not be progressive enough to cause defections from Democratic Senators, will need a majority of the Senate to be confirmed. Even before this floor vote, he will need to make it out of the Foreign Relations Committee where Chairman Marco Rubio has already made his displeasure in the choice of Tillerson known. More than just convincing Senator Rubio, Tillerson would have to overcome the likes of staunch anti-Russia hawks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham while also piloting through a course of bumpy waters with libertarian-leaning Senators like Rand Paul and Mike Lee. Still more, Tillerson’s opposition will likely also come in the form of Ben Sasse (R-NE) who has been a frequent critic of Mr. Trump as well as Senator McCain’s colleague from Arizona, Jeff Flake, who faces re-election in 2018.
While Trump may be able to peel away a few disaffected Democrats, or one of those 10 Democratic Senators who are up for re-election in 2018 in states that voted for Donald Trump, the reality looks to be that there are significant headwinds to Mr. Tillerson’s appointment as Secretary of State.
Most importantly, there are reports from the Washington Post that the strongest “behind the scenes” advocates of Mr. Tillerson have been none other than former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. There is a strong likelihood that, if these reports are accurate, that Mr. Trump will wage a full public relations press in order to convince Republican Senators to back Mr. Tillerson.
Mr. Tillerson has spent his entire professional career with Exxon. He was made a “friend of Russia” (Russian Order of Friendship) by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013. While overseeing the growth and development of Exxon, Mr. Tillerson has orchestrated some of the largest oil and gas deals in history, including some with Putin and Russia. In the view of Mr. Trump, this makes Mr. Tillerson eminently qualified to engage in high-level meetings with foreign counterparts. If anecdotes are to be believed, outside of Henry Kissinger, Mr. Tillerson is the American who has had the most face-to-face time with Vladimir Putin.
As we will likely cover in more detail later, Mr. Tillerson’s nomination is a clear sign from Mr. Trump that he intends to make good on his promise to thaw relations with the Kremlin and engage with Russia bilaterally to address some of the largest problems the world faces. While this selection will draw criticism from the hawks on the right and the anti-globalists on the left, Tillerson is the exact kind of individual Mr. Trump said he would intend to appoint if Mr. Trump were elected.
It now remains to be seen if Mr. Trump can convince enough of the Senators from his Party to support Tillerson.