Tillerson’s Task: Satisfy GOP’s Russia Hawks

Non-government background, ties to Russia loom as potential hurdles for secretary of state nominee

by Brendan Kirby | 11 Jan 2017 at 5:37 AM

A survey of the liberal activist base of the Democratic Party likely would put attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions at the top of appointments progressives most want to defeat. But the nominee for secretary of state might have a rougher ride.

Whereas Senate Republicans appear to be marching in lockstep behind Sessions, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson has drawn concern from a number of Republican senators over his relationship with Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Rex Tillerson will sit “if not on the hot seat, it will be warmer than usual.”

Those concerns — combined with a “much more hypocritical” line of attack by Democrats — means that Tillerson will sit “if not on the hot seat, it will be warmer than usual,” said Robert G. Kaufman, a foreign policy expert at Pepperdine University.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will kick of Tillerson’s confirmation hearing at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

Kaufman said senators are nearly certain to probe Tillerson about his background. He would be the first secretary of state with no prior experience in government or the military. In that regard, he resembles fellow businessman Donald Trump, who will be the first president without government or military service.

“It would have been [and area of questioning] anyway, given his relationship with Russia as an oil executive,” Kaufman said.

But in an atmosphere of allegations that Russia meddled in the campaign by stealing private communications of Democratic Party operatives that damaged Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, Kaufman said senators likely will press Tillerson even more aggressively on the issue.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the committee, expressed skepticism when Trump nominated Tillerson, who received a “friend of Russia” award during his tenure as ExxonMobil.

“Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a Secretary of State,” he tweeted last month.

In a statement released by the senator’s office, Rubio said, “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.”

Tillerson has potential problems with other Republican senators, as well. Asked last week if there was a realistic scenario in which he could support Tillerson, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) joked, “Sure. There’s also a realistic scenario that pigs fly,” according to U.S. News & World Report.

McCain last month also called Putin a “thug and a murderer,” according to Reuters.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, meanwhile, told reporters last month said his confirmation vote will be based on Tillerson’s willingness to be tough on Russia.

“It’s almost certain to be brought up,” said Kyle Shideler, director of threat information at the Washington-based Center for Security Policy. “How much impact it will have, I can’t say.”

Shideler said questions about the influence of Russia and other foreign powers in domestic affairs are important. He said he expects Tillerson to tell senators that he pursued deals advantageous to ExxonMobil when he ran the oil giant but would have a different role as America’s top diplomat.

“It’s the obvious answer, but it’s the answer any secretary of state needs to give,” he said.

Kaufman said Democrats should be careful what they wish for. If they did manage to kill Tillerson’s nomination, Trump might come back with former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, who would make Tillerson look like Democratic Secretary of State John Kerry.

Kaufman said he expects the GOP’s Russia hawks to ask tough questions but in the end confirm Tillerson, barring a major unforced error.

“They want to be reassured of robust deterrence of Putin,” he said. “What they’re really doing is trying to put Trump on notice, using Tillerson as surrogate.”

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