Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey O. Graham said Sunday that they will back the nomination of Rex Tillerson, clearing the way for the oil executive to become secretary of state and leaving just one drama unresolved: What will Marco Rubio do?
The Republican senator from Florida made clear during Tillerson’s confirmation hearing earlier this month that he had significant reservations, chastising the ExxonMobil chief executive for refusing to call Russia’s bombing campaign in Aleppo a war crime and declining to condemn Saudi Arabia and China as human rights violators.
“In order to have moral clarity, we need clarity. We can’t achieve moral clarity with rhetorical ambiguity,” Rubio told Tillerson. “We need a secretary of state who will fight for these principles.”
Since then, Rubio has come under significant pressure from Republican party leaders to back Tillerson and avoid a split within the GOP on one of President Trump’s most high-profile picks, according to those close to him. Rubio held an unannounced meeting with Tillerson last week, according to two people with knowledge of the get-together, although it was unclear whether Tillerson was able to alleviate Rubio’s concerns.
Now-Vice President Pence and now-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus were also in the meeting, according to a Rubio adviser familiar with the gathering. It lasted 90 minutes and was a blunt conversation not just about Tillerson’s answers at the hearing, but also about Rubio’s overall concerns about Russia and other matters, said the adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private talk.
The Rubio adviser said the senator had not planned to decide on his vote until he received written responses to the more than 100 questions he submitted to Tillerson, which he got back from the nominee on Thursday.
The White House did not respond Sunday to a request for comment on the meeting.
The Tillerson decision is a potentially pivotal one for the former presidential candidate, who during the campaign challenged President Trump on foreign-policy differences that have since been reflected in concerns Republicans have voiced about Tillerson.
Many in the party are leery of Trump’s friendly approach to Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, with whom Tillerson frequently interacted as the head of ExxonMobil. Putin awarded Tillerson the Kremlin’s Order of Friendship in 2013, and Tillerson has criticized sanctions the United States imposed on Russia over its annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
“Marco exposed a tension between kind of where a lot of Republicans are on Russia,” said Lanhee Chen, who served as an adviser to Rubio during his 2016 campaign. “He’s got a great opportunity to kind of lead this wing of the national security establishment that believes the long-standing orthodoxy on Russia.”
Politically, however, several people in Rubio’s circle said they see no upside to defying Trump, especially now that Tillerson is on the path to being confirmed. Rubio is aware that the backlash from the new White House would be intense, according to those close to him.
George Seay, a Dallas-based investment manager who was a major Rubio donor during his presidential run, said that many people close to him have been texting, calling and writing Rubio to urge him to support Tillerson “in very blunt fashion.”
“I think this is the wrong fight. I think it’s the wrong position to make a stand,” Seay said.
Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos did not respond to multiple inquiries Sunday about Rubio’s thinking on Tillerson or his meetings.
Seeming uncertainty is a familiar position for Rubio. During the 2013 debate over immigration reform, Rubio initially joined with Democrats to push for a comprehensive bill before backing away from the effort when conservative ire reached a boiling point. The fallout would follow him into his presidential campaign, where he took heat from the right for being part of the effort and criticism from the left for backing away from it.
During his presidential campaign, Rubio had a pattern of articulating two positions on some politically sensitive topics: his personal view, and what he considered to be politically doable.
This mirrored how he campaigned against Trump, as well. Early on, Rubio avoided attacking Trump, even when he clearly disagreed with him. When the primaries heated up, Rubio switched his strategy and launched a forceful — at times awkward — attack, calling Trump a “con man” and a “fraud.” After Trump won the nomination, Rubio switched again and supported his party’s nominee.
On Sunday morning, McCain (Ariz.) and Graham (S.C.) — Tillerson’s two other most vocal GOP critics — released a statement announcing they would support him for secretary of state when the full Senate votes on it. Citing additional conversations with Tillerson, the pair expressed “confidence” that Tillerson “can be an effective advocate for U.S. interests,” despite continued “concerns about his past dealings with the Russian government.”
Of all the Republican senators, only Rubio, McCain and Graham’s support for Tillerson has ever been seriously in doubt. Of the three, Rubio’s complaints have been the most broad, centering on his fear that as secretary of state, Tillerson might not be a strong-enough defender of human rights.
Rubio warned Tillerson that being too soft “leads to people to conclude . . . America cares about democracy and freedom as long as it isn’t being violated for something else.”
McCain and Graham’s support all but guarantees that Tillerson will easily win the simple majority he needs to be confirmed as secretary of state by the full Senate.
But if Rubio votes against Tillerson’s nomination in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — where Republicans outnumber Democrats by only one vote — it could throw a wrench into plans to move Tillerson’s nomination to the floor smoothly.
“I recognize the partisan split on the committee and what it would all mean,” Rubio told reporters after Tillerson’s hearing, asserting that he was “prepared to do what’s right.”
If Rubio opposes Tillerson, GOP leaders are prepared to use a variety of procedural options to get his nomination to the floor.
“I expect him to come out of the committee on Monday,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said following Trump’s inauguration Friday, although he admitted “the votes are still in flux.”
If committee members do not vote to report Tillerson’s nomination to the floor with a favorable recommendation, they can vote to send it to the floor with caveats, such as an unfavorable recommendation, or with no recommendation at all. If those efforts fail, a senator can file a discharge motion to circumvent the committee’s review authority entirely and send Tillerson’s nomination straight to the floor.
Top committee Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) said Friday that while he believes “our committee’s recommendation’s extremely important,” he does “recognize the fact that confirmations are by the Senate, not by committee.”