Rex Tillerson Is Confirmed as Secretary of State Amid Record Opposition

WASHINGTON — Rex W. Tillerson, the former chairman and chief executive of Exxon Mobil, was confirmed by the Senate on Wednesday in a 56-to-43 vote to become the nation’s 69th secretary of state just as serious strains have emerged with important international allies.

The votes against Mr. Tillerson’s confirmation were the most in Senate history for a secretary of state, a reflection of Democratic unease with President Trump’s early foreign policy pronouncements that threaten to upend a multilateral approach that has guided United States presidents since World War II.

Thirteen senators voted in 2005 against Condoleezza Rice in the midst of a deteriorating Iraq war, and in 1825, Henry Clay was confirmed 27 to 14, the record for votes against until Wednesday, according to a tally provided by the Senate Historical Office.

In a brief swearing-in ceremony in the Oval Office on Wednesday evening, Mr. Trump said Mr. Tillerson understood “the importance of strengthening our alliances and forming new alliances to enhance our strategic interests and the safety of our people.”

Mr. Trump added, “It’s time to bring a clear-eyed focus on foreign affairs, to take a fresh look at the world around us, and to seek new solutions grounded in very ancient truths.”

Mr. Tillerson thanked him and promised to “represent the interests of all of the American people at all times.”

Mr. Tillerson is expected to appear at the State Department’s Foggy Bottom headquarters on Thursday morning, when he will address department employees.

Mr. Trump’s unapologetically nationalistic approach has put into question the value of many alliances and multilateral institutions. How Mr. Tillerson’s translates Mr. Trump’s vow of “America First” into the kind of polite diplomatic parlance that will maintain vital ties will be a significant test.

Among his other challenges are dealing with Mr. Trump’s promises to recast relations with China and Russia, move the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, and re-examine an international nuclear deal with Iran.

In a White House briefing on Wednesday, Michael Flynn, the national security adviser, issued a stern warning to Iran. “The Obama administration failed to respond adequately to Tehran’s malign actions,” he said.

Mr. Tillerson, 64, a Texan, earned an engineering degree from the University of Texas at Austin, got a job at Exxon in 1975 and climbed his way to the top, leaving only last year. Neither a diplomat, soldier nor politician, he is an unconventional choice for the job, but has vast international experience.

With operations on six continents, Exxon Mobil is in some ways a state within a state. As its chief executive, Mr. Tillerson struck deals with repressive governments — in at least one case, against the advice of the State Department. Environmentalists largely opposed his nomination.

But his views on international affairs are in many ways more conventional than those of Mr. Trump, which is why even Democratic-leaning foreign affairs experts said they welcomed his selection in hopes he would bring ballast to a turbulent administration.

“Rex Tillerson will have the most demanding and complex agenda to face a secretary of state in a very long time,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a Harvard professor and career foreign service officer.

Another crucial question will be how much influence Mr. Tillerson has on Mr. Trump. All cabinet secretaries must compete for power with White House aides who have long personal relationships with and frequent access to the president. But Mr. Trump’s reliance on a close circle of advisers to write and vet executive orders while keeping departments that must implement them largely in the dark is without precedent.

Mr. Trump invited Mr. Tillerson for a private lunch at the White House on Wednesday, the first time Mr. Tillerson has appeared on the president’s official schedule.

Mollifying allies infuriated by Mr. Trump’s orders could be a full-time job. A ban on refugee arrivals and entries from seven Muslim countries, for instance, has enraged Iraqi officials whose cooperation is vital in the fight against the Islamic State — a top administration priority. It has also infuriated many European leaders crucial to efforts not only in Syria, but Afghanistan and Libya as well, and it has tarnished what had been viewed as a successful trip by Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, who on Monday said she opposed the ban.

Relations with Mexico have plunged to their lowest level in decades after Mr. Trump insisted he would build a border wall regardless of Mexican opposition.

The relationship with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany threatened to become toxic after Peter Navarro, the director of Mr. Trump’s new National Trade Council, denounced the relatively low value of the euro as an unfair currency advantage for Germany.

“Tillerson faces the most difficult task of any secretary of state in the postwar era in trying to reconcile President Trump’s intention to make a stark break from decades of bipartisan consensus U.S. foreign policy leadership with the reality that, if he succeeds, such a break could lead to global chaos,” said Ryan C. Crocker, who served as the United States ambassador to five Muslim countries.

Mr. Tillerson may also face difficult internal hurdles. Much of his department’s top leadership has departed — many because the Trump administration, like others before it, refused to keep political appointees. But the Trump transition team has been so short-handed and the pickings among Republican foreign policy veterans who had not criticized Mr. Trump so slim that dozens of positions are likely to remain empty for some time.

More worrisome, morale among the department’s rank-and-file career officers has plunged, with a dissent memo against the administration’s refugee and entry bans being submitted on Tuesday garnering more than 900 signatures, an extraordinary number.

Whether Mr. Tillerson meets these challenges with defiance or moderation will be a telling indication of his leadership.

Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said Monday that foreign service officers “can get with the program or they can go.”

Rex W. Tillerson was sworn in as secretary of state by Vice President Mike Pence, right, and alongside Mr. Tillerson’s wife, Renda St. Clair, and President Trump in the Oval Office on Wednesday. Credit Al Drago/The New York Times

Tillerson sworn in as secretary of state

Rex Tillerson was sworn in as the Trump administration's secretary of state Wednesday evening after having been confirmed by the Senate earlier in the day.

"It's time to bring a clear-eyed focus to foreign affairs," President Donald Trump said at a White House ceremony, adding, "All of us are better off when we act in concert and not conflict. There's rarely been conflict in the world like we see today. Very sad."

Vice President Mike Pence gave the oath of office to Tillerson.

The former ExxonMobil CEO -- who was confirmed in the Senate by a vote of 56 to 43, with all Republicans in support and most Democrats voting against him -- fills one more slot on Trump's national security team despite questions about his approach to Russia and state sponsors of terror, such as Iran.

Three Democratic senators split with their party to back Tillerson: Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Mark Warner of Virginia. They were joined by Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, who caucuses with Democrats.

Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was sure Tillerson would be an effective leader at the State Department.

"Mr. Tillerson led a global enterprise with 75,000 employees, possesses deep relationships around the world, and understands the critical role of US leadership," Corker said in a statement. "He has expressed a commitment to defend American values and to restore US credibility by strengthening old alliances and building new ones."

Time of uncertainty
Tillerson will take the helm of the US government's oldest executive agency, founded in 1789, at a time when Trump has roiled some of America's oldest and most stalwart allies.

The European Union president warned Tuesday that the Trump administration now poses a "threat" after the President's declaration that NATO is "obsolete. Trump also has repeatedly praised Brexit and said he expects other countries to leave the EU.

Asian allies such as South Korea and Japan are seeking reassurance after Trump suggested reconsidering security ties.

On Wednesday, former CIA Director David Petraeus hammered home the message that the US' alliances are a crucial part of its national security.
"Americans should not take the current international order for granted," Petraeus said told the House Armed Services Committee. "It did not will itself into existence. We created it. Likewise, it is not naturally self-sustaining. We have sustained it. If we stop doing so, it will fray and, eventually collapse. This is precisely what some of our adversaries seek to encourage," he said, mentioning Russia in particular.

The 64-year-old Texan had a shaky confirmation hearing before Corker's committee in January, generating frustration among Democrats and Republicans alike after he dodged a series of questions. He wouldn't agree when asked if Russia's Vladimir Putin -- who has given Tillerson Russia's highest civilian honor for his work there as an oil man -- is a war criminal. Tillerson also avoided condemning human rights abuses in China, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines. And he sidestepped a direct answer about whether humans cause climate change.

Democrats also raised concerns about how long Tillerson would recuse himself from decisions that could affect ExxonMobil once he became the top US diplomat.

Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, opposed Tillerson's nomination, questioning whether the Texan's close business dealings with Moscow would impact his response to any Russian aggression and arguing that "it is not the same thing to run a global business and run the State Department."

"We have reason to fear that Mr. Tillerson would run the State Department like he ran Exxon, where he repeatedly worked against US national interests," Murphy said Tuesday.

He noted that Tillerson opposed sanctions against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine and "was awarded the Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin," Murphy said on the Senate floor. "We have a President who has openly mocked human rights, who has supported vicious dictators, and a secretary of state who has made a career of doing business with some of the worst human rights violators in the world."

Sen. Diane Feinstein, a California Democrat, said she voted against Tillerson because he claimed not to know about Exxon's history of lobbying Congress in opposition to sanctions on Iran and Russia. She cited public documents that show Exxon established a joint venture with Shell called Infineum. That venture's purpose was to conduct business with Iran, Sudan and Syria, all considered by the US to be state sponsors of terror and under US sanctions.

"During that time, Mr. Tillerson rose from senior vice president to president and director, and eventually to chairman and CEO of Exxon," Feinstein said. "Yet, during his testimony, Mr. Tillerson claimed to be unaware of Infineum's purposeful evasion of sanctions."

Eventually, Tillerson narrowly won approval from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a 10-11 vote along party lines.

Democrats had hoped to delay a final vote in order to quiz Tillerson about the Trump administration's travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries. In his confirmation hearing, Tillerson said, "I do not support targeting any particular group."

Tillerson split from Trump on a series of issues in his confirmation hearing last month, condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine as "illegal" and saying he did not oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that President Donald Trump has rejected.

Tillerson also pushed back against Trump's campaign suggestion that South Korea and Japan should consider developing nuclear arsenals. And unlike Trump, who has repeatedly questioned the utility of NATO and its members' financial contributions, Tillerson expressed clear support for the alliance.

Rex Tillerson Confirmed as Secretary of State

The U.S. Senate voted Wednesday to confirm ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as the next secretary of state.

The vote in favor of President Trump's pick for the key cabinet post fell mostly along partisan lines, with Republican lawmakers who have voiced concerns like Senators Marco Rubio, John McCain and Lindsey Graham joining fellow GOP members in affirming the nomination.

Tillerson needed a simple majority — 51 senators — for confirmation. The final vote was 56 in favor, 43 against.

Three Democrats voted in favor of Tillerson, including Senators Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, and Mark Warner. Angus King, an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, also voted in for Tillerson.

Tillerson was sworn in by Vice President Mike Pence with Trump by his side during a ceremony in the Oval Office later Wednesday. Trump praised Tillerson for his experience and said the new secretary of state was "respected all over the world," according to a transcript released by the office of the White House press secretary.

"You bring the unique skills and deep, deep insights — and I've gotten to see it firsthand — into foreign diplomacy our nation needs to foster stability and security in a world too often trapped — and right now it's trapped — in violence and in war," Trump said of Tillerson.

It was Tillerson's contacts with Russia and strongman Vladimir Putin that raised alarms among some Republicans. Among other things, Tillerson was given the Order of Friendship award by Putin.

But after a sit-down with the skeptical senators, McCain said he would back Tillerson.

"Listen, this wasn't an easy call, but I believe when there's doubt, the incoming president gets the benefit of the doubt," McCain said earlier this month on ABC's "This Week."

Rubio was holding out on support out of concerns that Tillerson refused to say that he would support the continuation of sanctions against Russia over their aggression in Ukraine — and because Tillerson refused to say he would support sanctions against Moscow for meddling in the U.S. presidential election.

Amnesty International said "the eyes of the world" will be on Tillerson.

"As Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson's priority must be human rights," the group said. "However, during his confirmation hearings, he seemed to balk at acknowledging governments that we have long known to turn a blind eye toward human rights. His previous business deals have shown that he has no qualms about working with regimes with appalling human rights records."

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