President-Elect Donald Trump has chosen Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be his secretary of state. But with Tillerson’s ties to Russia now being called into question, how good are his chances of actually being confirmed by the Senate?
Trump announced his intention to nominate Tillerson on Twitter this morning. Although the businessman has no foreign policy experience, Trump says that he likes the fact that Tillerson has worked with foreign governments.
What is already abundantly clear is that Tillerson won’t make it into Donald Trump’s cabinet without a fight.
Here’s how the process is going to work. First, Tillerson’s name will be given to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which must approve him before a full Senate vote takes place. This committee has the opportunity to hold hearings, where they can scrutinize Tillerson and his Russia connections all they like. The committee can then vote to bring the nomination to the floor of the Senate, or they can vote to not move on the nomination at all, therefore killing Tillerson’s chances right away.
Some members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have already treated Tillerson’s nomination with skepticism. That includes Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who recently voiced concern over Tillerson’s relationship with Vladimir Putin.
In addition to that tweet, Rubio issued the following statement on Monday after Trump made the nomination official:
While Rex Tillerson is a respected businessman, I have serious concerns about his nomination. The next secretary of state must be someone who views the world with moral clarity, is free of potential conflicts of interest, has a clear sense of America’s interests, and will be a forceful advocate for America’s foreign policy goals to the president, within the administration, and on the world stage. I look forward to learning more about his record and his views. I will do my part to ensure he receives a full and fair but also thorough hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee consists of 19 members, nine Democrats and 10 Republicans. If all nine Democrats were to vote against Tillerson, only a single Republican would have to join them in order for Tillerson to be rejected right there in committee. Based on his comments this week, that single Republican could very well be Marco Rubio, in which case President-Elect Trump will face a major blow by having his most significant appointment not even receive a floor vote.
Assuming Tillerson is able to make it past the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, though, the Senate then votes on whether to confirm him, with this being the final step in the process. Only 51 votes are required, and Democrats no longer have the opportunity to filibuster thanks to a recent rule change. Starting in January, Republicans will hold 52 seats in the Senate compared to Democrats’ 48 seats.
Assuming Democrats unanimously vote to reject Tillerson, only three Republicans would need to vote against him.
In recent days, some Republican Senators have indicated that they may be leaning towards a “no” vote depending on how the upcoming hearings go. In addition to Marco Rubio, there’s also John McCain.
“It’s a matter of concern to me that he has such a close personal relationship with Vladimir Putin,” McCain recently said in an interview on CBS. “That would color his approach to Vladimir Putin and the Russian threat.”
In a separate interview, McCain added that anyone who does not think that Putin is a thug and a murderer is lying, according to The Hill.
Meanwhile, Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma is yet another Republican who isn’t so sure about Tillerson. A spokesperson for Lankford recently told CNN that he has “a lot of questions about Mr. Tillerson and his ties to Russia, and his ability to be America’s top diplomat.”
With Rubio, McCain and Lankford, then, already we have three Republicans who are considering voting against Tillerson. If all three of them do so, and all of the Senate Democrats vote against him, Rex Tillerson will not become the next secretary of state.
However, not everyone is convinced, feeling that Republicans like Rubio will eventually do what Trump wants.
“Rubio will do plenty of throat-clearing about the threat from Putin’s Russia but he’s not going to take the heat of voting against Tillerson in committee when hawks like Dick Cheney and Condi Rice have vouched for him,” anonymous conservative blogger “Allahpundit” writes on Hot Air. “He’ll fold. Maybe you’ll lose McCain and Graham in the floor vote, but if every other Republican votes yes as a goodwill gesture to the new president, Tillerson can get confirmed with Mike Pence as the tiebreaker even if every Democrat votes no.”
So far, it looks like most Democrats are united against Tillerson, particularly those Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who will hold hearings looking into Tillerson’s association with Russia. Ben Cardin, the leading Democrat on this committee, said in a recent appearance on CNN that he is highly concerned about Tillerson and Russia.
“We want to make sure that the secretary of state is a person who represents America,” Cardin said. “Russia is not our friend. They’ve attacked our allies. They’re attacking us through the Internet. We need to make sure that the secretary of state has independence and will represent U.S. interests and are not concerned about commercial interests with Russia over what is our national security interest.”
Cardin references the fact that the Central Intelligence Agency concluded in a secret assessment that Russia interfered in the U.S. election with the explicit purpose of trying to help Donald Trump win, according to a report from The Washington Post. Although there is no evidence that Russia actually altered any votes, there is evidence that they hacked both the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee but only released e-mails from the Democratic National Committee in order to tip the scales towards Trump.
Both Democrats and some Republicans are now calling for an investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell joined this group yesterday when he said that any Republican who does not support an investigation of this kind is simply being partisan.
“Any foreign breach of our cybersecurity measures is disturbing and I strongly condemn any such efforts,” he said. “The Russians are not our friends.”
The other Senators calling for this investigation are Republican John McCain, Democrat Chuck Schumer, Republican Lindsey Graham, and Democrat Jack Reed. President-Elect Donald Trump says that he does not believe the assessment of the Central Intelligence Agency, claiming that the agency has no way of knowing if Russia was involved in hacking.
This is all to say that in the midst of bipartisan concern over Russia attempting to influence the recent presidential election, the nomination of a person with close ties to Russia could not come at a worse time.