On Wednesday, February 1, former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson was sworn as the 69th Secretary of State. The Senate vote of 56-43 represents the highest level of opposition for a Secretary of State in recent history. The opposition against Tillerson breaks the record held by Henry Clay who in 1825 was confirmed 27-14 for the same position.
In recent years, most Secretary of State nominees have sailed through the process. During the Obama Administration, both John Kerry (2013) and Hillary Clinton (2009) were easily confirmed 94-3 and 94-2 respectfully. During the Clinton Administration Madeline Albright was confirmed with no opposition 99-0 (1997). During the George W. Bush Administration Colin Powell was also confirmed unanimously (2001).
The only Secretary of State nominee in recent years to receive some opposition was Condoleeza Rice who was confirmed 85-13 (2005) during George W. Bush’s second term. Some say that Rice faced relatively higher opposition because the country was still engaged in the unpopular Iraq War at the time.
The opposition to Tillerson, who has spent his entire career at Exxon Mobil, has largely been grounded in the fact that he is the first Secretary of State nominee who has no experience in either government or the military, a situation he shares with President Trump who is the first US President without any previous experience in either government or the military.
Tillerson has also been criticized for what analysts have described as a cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin because of his significant business dealings with Russia and because Putin in 2014 awarded Tillerson “Russia’s Order of Friendship” recognition.
And of course, environmentalists are opposed to Tillerson because he supports fracking. When questioned about climate change, Tillerson acknowledged that it exists but that it is not an imminent national security threat.
Tillerson faced a particularly contentious hearing with Republicans Senator Marco Rubio (Florida), Senator John McCain (Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) aggressively questioning him and intimating that they were reticent to support his nomination. Ultimately, the three former presidential candidates came around and voted for Tillerson.
President Trump maintains that he selected Tillerson for the Secretary of State position because he is outside of the political establishment and has extensive grand scale international deal-making experience which of course requires tremendous relationship management skills. “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,” President Trump said of Tillerson.
Hopefully, President Trump’s instincts about Tillerson were accurate and that our new Secretary of State is, as Senator Bob Corker said during the Senate confirmation hearings, “an inspired choice” for the United States’s top diplomat job.
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