the cabinet
What Tillerson Means

Rex Tillerson, Exxon’s CEO and Donald Trump’s choice for Secretary of State, seems to have a less certain path to 51 votes in the upper chamber than any of the president-elect’s other prospective cabinet members. The Wall Street Journal reports:

GOP hesitation over Mr. Tillerson marked the first sign of division between congressional Republicans and the Trump team over its likely cabinet picks. All of President-elect Donald Trump’s other nominees so far appear likely to be confirmed by the Senate.

Mr. Tillerson, a seasoned deal-maker whose company has a long history of doing business in Russia, is drawing unease from senators on both sides of the aisle. Republicans can likely afford to lose only two GOP votes next year in the new Congress when it meets to consider Mr. Trump’s nominees.

The timing of Trump’s announcement—just as heated charges about Putin’s involvement in the U.S. election were starting to resurface—has contributed to the public pushback against Tillerson, who has worked closely with the commanding heights of the Kremlin as CEO of Exxon, and opposes sanctions against Russia. Some commentators have described this as a tactical slip-up on the part of the incoming president, suggesting that he was caught flat-footed by Russia-related concerns about his nominee. We’re not convinced; more likely, he is dead-set on a Russia realignment and sees Tillerson’s experience as an asset.

Lawmakers should do their due diligence vetting the Secretary of State nominee, but it’s worth remembering that shooting him down is unlikely to seriously change the course of the Trump Administration’s Russia policy. The selection of Tillerson amounts to a signal that the administration will indeed try to lead the U.S. toward some kind of rapprochement with Moscow. It has been one of Trump’s most consistent messages on foreign policy since the primary campaign, and its implementation does not depend on the confirmation of the Exxon CEO.

The Tillerson confirmation hearings promise to feature a vigorous debate about U.S.-Russia relations. This debate is productive insofar as it helps to clarify the incoming administration’s position on key questions and let the public and its representatives push back if they so choose. But in the end, a vote blocking Tillerson is not likely to block Trump’s foreign policy agenda; it would in all likelihood mean that the same agenda would be carried out with an individual with a thinner record on Russia heading Foggy Bottom. With this in mind, Senators might do well to consider the Tillerson confirmation exercise as less an up-or-down vote on aggressive Russia policy and more an assessment of Tillerson’s integrity, competency, and experience—which, as of yet, there are no credible reasons to doubt.

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