The Senate confirmed former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of State on Wednesday, even as Democrats blocked progress on other Cabinet nominees chosen by President Trump.
The vote, 56-43, puts a man who has negotiated business deals with countries around the world, including some hostile to the United States, in position to negotiate on behalf of Trump in matters of war and peace, climate change and human rights.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, praised Tillerson before Wednesday’s vote.
“His experience and aptitude and talent will be put to work for the American people,” Cornyn said. “He’s a man of character who believes in putting his country first.”
Tillerson's first task may be to calm a State Department where nearly 1,000 diplomats signed a letter of dissent objecting to Trump's executive order that temporarily suspends the U.S. refugee program and bars immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said he opposed Tillerson’s confirmation because “negotiating oil deals does not prepare you to be a diplomat advocating for American values.”
He faulted Tillerson, 64, for saying during his confirmation hearing that he needed more information before he could respond to senators’ questions about whether women suffered human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. The answer is known to every school child, Heinrich said.
Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., said he would vote against Tillerson because as chief of ExxonMobil, he did business with countries that were at odds with the U.S., like Russia, Iran, Syria and Sudan.
“Putting a company’s interest before American interest is inexcusable and a disqualifying characteristic for America’s next secretary of State,” Donnelly said.
As CEO of the largest U.S. oil company, Tillerson developed oil fields in the Arctic Sea, Siberia and the Black Sea in Russia. His contributions to Russia’s bottom line was so great that President Vladimir Putin awarded him his nation’s Order of Friendship in 2013.
“Right now when we’re trying to hold Russia accountable for its illegal aggression in eastern Europe, war crimes in Syria … how can we trust someone to represent our interests to someone with such a cozy relationship with Russia as Rex Tillerson?” Heinrich said.
Heinrich also questioned how Tillerson would represent U.S. interests on climate change.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat, opened a formal investigation in 2015 into whether ExxonMobil had misled investors and regulators about the risks of climate change, despite having research proving the contrary. Tillerson, who served as president of the Boy Scouts of America from 2010 to 2012, called the charges “pretty unfounded.”
Contributing: Eliza Collins