Rex Tillerson is in trouble. Since his confirmation hearing last Wednesday, a few senators have been mulling his candidacy as Donald Trump’s secretary of state with a growing queasiness—and a few senators are all it takes to doom his prospects.
The near-unanimous view, even among his supporters, is that Tillerson himself did no favors in that hearing. He came before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with heavy baggage. As longtime chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest oil company, he had cut deals with tyrants; maneuvered against the interests of U.S. foreign policy; and enjoyed especially close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had awarded him an Order of Friendship medal.
Several senators and their staffs, expecting to engage with a worldly sage regardless of what else they might think of him, came out of the hearing surprised at how little Tillerson knew about high-profile foreign policy issues. (He had been offered, but turned down, a briefing from the State Department.) Some chafed at his apparent lack of concern for human rights in several countries where he’d done business. And a few were appalled by his deceptive testimony on Exxon Mobil’s lobbying practices.
The key moment came when Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, noted that, in his time at Exxon Mobil, Tillerson had lobbied against U.S. sanctions policies. Tillerson replied that neither he nor his company had ever done that. After the lunch break, Menendez returned with Exxon Mobil’s own lobbying forms indicating that it had, in fact, lobbied against 10 bills to impose sanctions on Russia, Iran, and other countries. Tillerson suggested that maybe the company had lobbied in favor of sanctions. Menendez smiled and said, “I know you weren’t lobbying for sanctions.” Tillerson then said his company might simply have been seeking information about the bills. Menendez said, “You don’t need a lobbying form to seek clarification and information on a bill. So there was lobbying here.” Tillerson replied that he didn’t remember the particular incidents and suggested that the senator contact Exxon Mobil. (Tillerson is no longer associated with the company, having resigned soon after his nomination.)
Senators demand at least the pretense that a Cabinet secretary will keep them posted on policies, perhaps even consult with them on options, certainly approach them as peers with honesty and trust. Because the committee chairman, Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, hadn’t asked Tillerson to take the oath before testifying (a departure from usual policy), no perjury charges can be brought here, but Tillerson was lying—and needlessly so. He could have said that at Exxon Mobil he’d lobbied on behalf of his stockholders but now the American people would be his stockholders and their national security interests would be his sole interest. But he didn’t. The exchange raised questions as to whether the senators could trust him.
Often, after a hearing, senators submit questions for a witness to answer in writing. I’m told that, since Tillerson’s hearing, the senators on the Foreign Relations Committee have sent him nearly 1,000 questions—many times more than the usual amount—that he must answer before a vote is taken on his nomination.
The committee’s membership is almost evenly divided along party lines—11 Republicans and 10 Democrats. If every Democrat were to vote against Tillerson, it would take just one Republican to block the nomination. Three of the panel’s Democrats have publicly said they will vote no; staffers tell me that one more is on the verge of joining in and that the other six are leaning in that direction. As for the Republicans, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio harshly questioned Tillerson at the hearing about Russia and human rights in general; afterward, he told reporters that he was thinking seriously about doing “the right thing.” Rubio may also be seeking revenge against Trump, who belittled him during the presidential race and is believed to be contemplating a run in 2020 if Trump’s first term is wildly unpopular. Many assume that Trump will punish those who vote against his Cabinet choices, but Rubio may be immune from such threats: He just won re-election to the Senate, so he wouldn’t face a primary challenger for another six years, and it’s unlikely Trump would cancel federal contracts in Florida.
It’s rare for the Senate to reject a president’s nominee for high office, but it’s not unprecedented. In 2005, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was all set to reject John Bolton, President George W. Bush’s nominee for U.N. ambassador. The panel’s Democrats unanimously opposed his appointment, and suddenly one Republican dissented as well—at which point the Republican chairman postponed the vote, pending further investigation. The Senate soon after broke for vacation, and Bush slipped Bolton in as a “recess appointment.” However, under the rules, the Senate committee reconsidered his nomination a year later, and, sensing defeat, Bolton withdrew.
The problem with Bolton was that he openly expressed disdain for the United Nations and the whole notion of international law—views that made him an odd candidate to be the nation’s U.N. ambassador. He was also loudly opposed by many outside groups and was personally disliked by many Republicans.
Tillerson doesn’t face quite those kinds of obstacles, making an outright blockage less likely, especially since the people who’d been on Trump’s short list of candidates for secretary of state—including Bolton—were less appetizing still.
If the committee does reject Tillerson, Chairman Corker could schedule a second vote on whether to send his nomination to the floor with an “unfavorable” recommendation. That’s what happened in 1983 with Kenneth Adelman, President Ronald Reagan’s choice to be director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. (Adelman didn’t much like the idea of arms control and disarmament.) The Foreign Relations Committee voted down his nomination 8–9. It then approved, 14–3, a motion to send his nomination to the floor with an “unfavorable” stamp. The full Senate confirmed him 57–42.
Tillerson might have a harder time on the Senate floor than Adelman did. First, the Senate in 1983 had three more Republicans than it does now. (The margin was 55–45 then, 52–48 now.) Second, two of the most influential Republicans on these matters, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham (who both sit on the Armed Services Committee), are deeply skeptical of Tillerson’s ties with Russia and his opposition to sanctions. And who knows what further grist for distrust might emerge from Tillerson’s answers to the committee’s 1,000 questions?
If things get too unpleasant, Tillerson might simply pull out. The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, Trump’s nominee for secretary of labor, is reportedly mulling a withdrawal in the face of relentless criticism in the press. Very wealthy corporate chiefs—a description that matches most of Trump’s Cabinet picks—tend to surround themselves with yes-men and aren’t accustomed to attacks in the mass media (or anyplace else). These sorts of people don’t need these sorts of jobs. They may have entered the fray with good intentions, as an act of noblesse oblige, believing their financial successes would be held in esteem and their sacrifices appreciated. Splashes of cold water don’t likely strike them as exhilarating.
Nor will life turn fun anytime soon. Practically on the eve Trump’s inauguration, no one has yet been chosen for the State Department’s second-echelon positions—the deputy, under, and assistant secretaries. The same is true at the Pentagon and in other departments. Who’s going to make policy? How is the administration going to govern? Then there are the mysteries of what the Trump administration’s policies are going to be.
One thing that came out of last week’s confirmation hearings for three national security nominees—Tillerson for state, retired Gen. James Mattis for defense, and retired Gen. John Kelly for homeland security—is that all three disagree with the incoming president who appointed them on some of his most cherished issues: the trustworthiness of Putin, the need for NATO, and the usefulness of a great wall on the Southern border. The who, the what, the how—so many things about the crew that’s roaring into Washington in just a few days—seem entirely up for grabs.