On Sunday, McCain indicated, “I have had numerous conversations with him. And, again, my concerns have been about our relations with Russia. And his past relations, I believe — and I’m very cautious about this — but I believe that Mr. Tillerson understands the importance of a steadfast and strong relationship.” McCain said on ABC’s “This Week,” “Well, he talked to me a lot about his views about Russia, about the events that have taken place, about the fact of what his duties were as a head of one of the world’s largest corporations.” He added: “Listen, this wasn’t an easy call. But I also believe that, when there’s doubt, the president, the incoming president, gets the benefit of the doubt.” Frankly, this president has given us no rationale for affording him the benefit of any doubt, but perhaps Tillerson gave McCain assurances on specific issues. Alternatively, McCain and Graham may have figured the alternatives would be worse if Tillerson’s nomination went down. Although we disagree, they have a reasoned argument for supporting him. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote will take place this afternoon.
We find the arguments laid out by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, against Tillerson more compelling:
Mr. Tillerson equivocated on these self-evident truths under direct questioning, repeatedly prioritizing narrow business interests ahead of these core national security interests. The power of the Secretary of State to call out wrong, to name and shame, and to fight each day on behalf of the American people and freedom-seeking people the world over is an enduring symbol to the oppressed and the vulnerable that the United States has their back.Unlike Governor Haley’s answers to questions during her hearing to be Ambassador to the United Nations, Mr. Tillerson was unwilling to characterize Russia and Syria’s atrocities as war crimes, or Philippine President Duterte’s extrajudicial killings as gross human rights violations. And he was not willing to dismiss with unqualified clarity a registry for any ethnic or religious group of Americans.
Indeed, Haley may have been a superior nominee for secretary of state. Cardin continued, “I also believe Mr. Tillerson misled the Committee regarding his knowledge of ExxonMobil’s lobbying on U.S. sanctions. ExxonMobil’s lobbying activities are well documented, as is the Securities and Exchange Commission’s inquiries regarding the company’s use of a foreign subsidiary to get around congressionally-mandated sanctions and do business with state-sponsors of terrorism and some of the worst human rights abusers in the world such as Sudan, Syria, and Iran.”
Cardin’s final concern may be the most compelling: “On Russia more broadly, I am concerned as to whether Mr. Tillerson would counsel President Trump to keep current sanctions in place — which includes leading our European allies in this most important of endeavors. He showed little interest in advancing the new Russia sanctions legislation I’ve introduced with Senator McCain and colleagues on both sides of the aisle.”
Put differently, Tillerson’s nomination may well be seen (and may have been intended) as one more pro-Russia move from a president who continues to act as Vladimir Putin’s PR man, much the way then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry served as Tehran’s defense counsel whenever the regime was accused of wrongdoing. The appearance that Putin got the State nominee he wanted should disturb those well aware of Putin’s agenda.
Tillerson will have work to do to earn the trust of Congress, his peers and the American people. If he is as savvy as his supporters claim, he will demonstrate toughness and brutal honesty in his dealings with Putin and work to convince his new boss that Putin is no friend of democracies. Most important, he will need to defend his turf as the United States’ chief diplomat, resisting the interference from White House political hacks and the president’s 36-year-old son-in-law.
Tillerson will have strong support from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. They must put inter-agency rivalries aside and work cooperatively to combat Trump’s worst instincts, advance U.S. power and values, and — if need be — threaten to resign if the president demands dishonesty or policies that will harm the country. Tillerson had an extremely shaky hearing; we hope he is a fast learne
UPDATE: As we anticipated Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), infamous for talking tough and then getting in line, announced he will vote for Tillerson as well.