Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was far and away the most effective questioner on the GOP side in yesterday’s confirmation hearing for Rex Tillerson for secretary of state. He asked crisp questions, pointed out where Tillerson dodged and demonstrated the degree to which Tillerson was uncomfortable giving definitive answers on a range of issues, including human rights. Late in the day, Rubio wrapped up with this:
The committee members have other concerns, including Tillerson’s tenure at ExxonMobil. Democrats pressed him on his record of doing business through an affiliate with countries such as Syria and Iran, and asked him to explain ExxonMobil’s record of denying climate change. He would not answer directly, underscoring how different his role was as a corporate chief executive from that of a secretary of state.
Tillerson’s unfamiliarity with the inner workings of government and of diplomacy specifically would put him in a much weaker position than, say, a John Bolton, who possesses granular knowledge of issues and experience taming State Department bureaucracy. For those concerned the permanent foreign service corps would undermine a newcomer at every turn and slow-walk policy initiatives, Tillerson is a problematic choice. His reliance on generic statements and refusal to reveal policy positions emphasized just how much he will have to learn. A steep learning curve for a secretary of state in times such as these may be deeply worrisome, particularly when national security appointees in the White House (e.g. Michael T. Flynn) may capitalize on a weaker-than-usual secretary of state to push their personal agendas.
Rubio did not say how he would vote on Tillerson’s confirmation. However, as one who was perceived as less than resolute during and after the presidential campaign (for example, supporting President-elect Donald Trump while saying he had concerns about Trump handling the nuclear codes), Rubio should align his votes with his rhetoric if he wants to silence critics.
In the end, Rubio might conclude other Trump picks could be worse than Tillerson, or that Tillerson is at least open to listening to Congress and learning as he goes. He might find that Tillerson will try to live down his reputation as soft on Russia, and therefore be more aggressive in his Russia policy than others would. Regardless of the reason, however, if he winds up voting to confirm Tillerson, he only will have underscored criticism that his bark is worse than his bite.
Rubio has a remarkable opportunity to distinguish himself from more politically craven, hawkish colleagues such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who introduced Tillerson, and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who backed Tillerson before hearing a word of testimony. We will see how much Rubio has learned from the presidential experience and his first term in the Senate. Does going along to get along pay off, or does forging your own way on issues that may put you at odds with the party make you into presidential material? The Tillerson vote will be telling.