WASHINGTON – Former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson was confirmed as secretary of state Wednesday in a close, primarily party-line vote in the Senate.
The vote was 56 to 43, with all Republicans, three Democrats, and an Independent, Senator Angus King of Maine, voting to confirm Tillerson. The three Democrats who supported Tillerson were Senators Mark Warner of Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
With the vote, the Texas oil man ascends to head the State Department at a frenzied time for U.S. relationships abroad, with President Donald Trump taking his anti-elite message to the White House and promising a new “America First” era of foreign policy.
Trump’s decision last week place a three-month ban on citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States quickly ensnared Tillerson, with Democrats arguing to delay his confirmation until he could go on the record about the executive order.
Tillerson “said moderate Muslims were going to be our greatest allies. He might be wary about a policy that singles out seven Muslim countries,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the Senate floor earlier this week.
But the move was rejected by the Republican-controlled Senate as a delay tactic, in line with other attempts to block Trump’s cabinet nominees. On Wednesday Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee boycotted a vote on Scott Pruitt, nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
Tillerson’s “confirmation before this chamber to serve as our top diplomat should have been a no brainer,” said Majority Whip Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “But we know our Democratic colleagues are still trying to litigate the election.”
In Tillerson, 64, Trump has found a business icon who spent the last decade helming one of the world’s largest companies and has extensive experience working in Russia and the Middle East.
His business dealings abroad made for a rocky confirmation process. During a Senate hearing earlier this month, he took tough questioning from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who along with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz., questioned his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The three Republicans eventually backed off, giving their support to Tillerson’s nomination. But when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee took up the confirmation last week, every Democrat on the committee voted against Tillerson, leaving him with a thin 11-10 victory.
Most all on the committee commended Tillerson’s career and willingness to take on such a demanding job at what appeared to be the end of an equally demanding career at Exxon. But Democrats questioned whether Tillerson would act as the back stop to a president of whom they have expressed increasing concern.
“It’s painfully obvious when the president says ‘America First’ the cumulative impact leads to America alone,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Tuesday. Tillerson will be working for, “the most dangerous, thin-skinned president we’ve seen on foreign policy issues.”
The former Exxon head will be taking over an agency in the State Department that is deeply divided over Trump’s immigration ban. A memo protesting the executive order that was circulated among career staff at the agency had close to 900 signatures when it was submitted to acting Secretary of State Tom Shannon, according to Reuters.
Asked about the memo Monday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said agency officials who object to Trump’s decision “should get with the program or they can go.”