Senate Confirms Nomination of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State

On January 23 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a straight party-line vote, 11 to 10, approved the nomination of Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State. [1]  On February 1 the full Senate did the same, 56 to 43, which was the largest negative vote for confirmation for this position in the Senate’s history. [2]

Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN), the Chair of the Committee, said the following:[3]=

  • “I personally have no doubt that Rex Tillerson is well-qualified. He’s managed the world’s eighth largest company by revenue with over 75,000 employees. Diplomacy has been a critical component of his positions in the past, and he has shown himself to be an exceptionally able and successful negotiator who has maintained deep relationships around the world.”
  • “The other absolute standard we apply to each of these nominees who come before us is to ensure they have no conflicts of interest related to their position.”
  • “The non-partisan director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) recently stated that Mr. Tillerson is making ‘a clean break’ from Exxon and is free of these conflicts. He has even gone so far to say that Mr. Tillerson’s ethics agreement ‘serves as a sterling model for what we would like to see from other nominees. He clearly recognizes that public service sometimes comes at a cost.’”
  • “I believe inquiries into Mr. Tillerson’s nomination have been fair and exhaustive. His hearing lasted over eight hours, and he’s responded to over 1,000 questions for the record. I’m proud of the bipartisan process, which is in keeping of the tradition of this committee that we pursued this, regarding his nomination, and I think that while our opinions and votes today may differ, that the process has been very sound.”

Senator Benjamin Cardin (Dem., RI), voting against confirming this nomination, said the following:[4]

  • “I believe Mr. Tillerson’s demonstrated business orientation and his responses to questions during the confirmation hearing could compromise his ability as Secretary of State to forcefully promote the values and ideals that have defined our country and our leading role in the world for more than 200 years. I will therefore not be supporting his nomination with my vote in Committee or on the Senate floor.”
  • “The United States plays a unique and exceptional role in world affairs.  Our values are our interests, as I said at Mr. Tillerson’s hearing. And our leadership in supporting democracy, universal human rights, unencumbered civil society, and unabridged press and religious freedoms is indispensable if these ideas and ideals are to be real and tangible in the world.”
  • “Mr. Tillerson equivocated on these self-evident truths under direct questioning, repeatedly prioritizing narrow business interests ahead of these core national security interests.  The power of the Secretary of State to call out wrong, to name and shame, and to fight each day on behalf of the American people and freedom-seeking people the world over is an enduring symbol to the oppressed and the vulnerable that the United States has their back.”
  • “Mr. Tillerson was unwilling to characterize Russia and Syria’s atrocities as war crimes, or Philippine President Duterte’s extrajudicial killings as gross human rights violations. And he was not willing to dismiss with unqualified clarity a registry for any ethnic or religious group of Americans.”
  • “I also believe Mr. Tillerson misled the Committee regarding his knowledge of ExxonMobil’s [well documented] lobbying on U.S. sanctions [against “some of the worst human rights abusers in the world such as Sudan, Syria, and Iran”]. Additionally, ExxonMobil’s stance on U.S. sanctions against Russia for their illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea, Ukraine in 2014 was well known at the time . . . . This is why it is particularly concerning that Mr. Tillerson indicated during questioning that he was not willing to recuse himself from matters relevant to ExxonMobil for the entire duration of his term.”
  • “While I was pleased that Mr. Tillerson said that he would support the laws I have written to hold accountable human rights abusers globally and in Russia specifically, and that America should have a seat at the table when discussing climate change with the international community, merely being willing to uphold the law or being willing to participate in global diplomacy are simply the necessary prerequisites for the job, not sufficient cause for confirmation.”
  • “On Russia more broadly, I am concerned as to whether Mr. Tillerson would counsel President Trump to keep current sanctions in place. . . . He showed little interest in advancing the new Russia sanctions legislation I’ve introduced with Senator McCain and colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Russia attacked us through cyber warfare and has committed even greater atrocities in Ukraine, Syria, and Eastern Europe. They must be held accountable and our bipartisan legislation is an important tool to do so.”
  • “Strangely, he was quick to caution about easing sanctions on Cuba because it would benefit a repressive regime, but seemed indifferent to doing business with Russia knowing that that business helped finance their ongoing violations of international norms.”
  • “Finally, America deserves a Secretary of State who will take advantage of every smart power tool in America’s diplomatic arsenal before recommending the use of force. I was therefore disturbed when Mr. Tillerson signaled during the hearing he would have recommended using force sooner when asked about real-world scenarios. The Secretary of State must be the consistent voice in any Administration that ensures the President has exhausted all diplomatic efforts before we put our brave men and women in uniform in harm’s way.”

Senate Debate and Vote

During the debate, supporters stressed Tillerson’s qualifications and the importance of confirming the president’s choice or this important position.

The affirmative vote of 56 was recorded by all 52 Republican senators plus three Democrats (Heitkamp (ND), Manchin (WV) and Warner (VA)) and Independent King (ME).

The negative vote of 43 was registered by  the other 42 Democrat senators and Independent Sanders (VT).

Conclusion

In the meantime, there have been at least four major developments linked to the future role of the State Department and its new Secretary.

First, a White House post, “America First Foreign Policy,” has no specific references to Cuba. But it does have this helpful general statement: In “pursuing a foreign policy based on American interests, we will embrace diplomacy. The world must know that we do not go abroad in search of enemies, that we are always happy when old enemies become friends, and when old friends become allies.”

Second, the White House has informed at least 13 career Foreign Service officers in charge of the State Department’s bureaus responsible for policy, security and other matters that they will not be retained in those positions. A Department spokesman said, “These positions are political appointments, and require the president to nominate and the Senate to confirm them in these roles. They are not career appointments, but of limited term.” However, as Nicholas Burns, former under secretary of state for political affairs during the George W. Bush administration and a longtime diplomat, said, “Normally the outgoing person would stay in the job until his or her successor is confirmed. What you don’t want to have is a vacuum without senior leadership.”[5]

Third, the Trump Administration on January 27 issued an executive order banning admission into the U.S. of all refugees worldwide and all immigrants from seven states with majority-Muslim populations while simultaneously welcoming Christian immigrants from those same countries. This immediately prompted lawsuits in federal courts across the country with a federal court in Seattle on February 3 issuing a temporary restraining order against implementation of the executive order and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit the next morning denying the Government’s motion to stay the lower court’s order.[6]

Fourth, in another immediate reaction to that executive order, over 900 State Department diplomats prepared and submitted a dissent cable objecting to that same executive order because of its impact on “green card holders, visa holders, visa seekers, the young, the old, and the sick.” [7]

On the periphery perhaps of the above turmoil is whether the Trump Administration will abandon or alter the Obama Administration’s pursuit of normalisation of relations with Cuba. As noted in a prior post, the Administration recently stated it has commenced an overall review of U.S. policies regarding Cuba, which in the abstract sounds like a reasonable thing to do. Previous statements by President Trump and Mr. Tillerson, however, suggest that a significant retreat is on its way, a development that would be very troubling to this blogger and other supporters of normalisation.[8]

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[1] Flegenheimer, Mike Pompeo Is Confirmed to Lead C.I.A., as Rex Tillerson Advances, N.Y. Times (Jan. 23, 2017); Schor, Senate panel approves Tillerson nomination, Politico (Jan. 23, 2017); Cama, Senate panel votes to confirm Tillerson, The Hill (Jan. 23, 2017); Demirjian & Sullivan, Tillerson approved by Senate panel as secretary of state, Wash. Post (Jan. 23, 2017).

[2] Harris, Rex Tillerson Is Confirmed as Secretary of State Amid Record Opposition, N.Y. Times (Feb. 1, 2017); Assoc Press, Senate Confirms Tillerson To Be   Secretary of State, Wash. Post (Feb. 1, 2017); Assoc. Press, Senate roll vote for Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State, Wash. Post (Feb., 1, 2017).

[3] Corker, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Approves Nomination of Rex Tillerson to Be Secretary of State (Jan. 23, 2017).

[4]Cardin, Cardin Statement on Tillerson Vote (Jan. 23, 2016).

[5] Gearan, Trump administration choosing to replace several senior State Department officials, Wash. Post (Jan. 26, 2017); Schwartz, Facing Replacement, Top State Department Officials Resign, W.S.J. (Jan. 26, 2017).

[6] E.g., Full Executive Order Text: Trump’s Action Limiting Refugees Into the U.S., N.Y. Times (Jan. 27, 2017); Ländler, Appeals Court Rejects Request to Immediately Restore Travel Ban, N.Y. Times (Feb. 4, 2017).

[7] Reuters, Trump’s Early Moves Spark Alarm, Resistance, N.Y. Times (Feb. 1, 2017); Biddle, New Memo from State Department Dissent Chanel Describes Anguish of Spurned Refugees, The Intercept (Jan. 31, 2017).

[8] These posts to dwkcommentaries.com have discussed preliminary indicators for the future of U.S.-Cuba relations: The Future of U.S.-Cuba Normalization Under the Trump Administration (Dec. 22, 2016); Secretary of State Nominee Rex Tillerson Addresses U.S. Policies Regarding Cuba (Jan. 12, 2017); Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State Nominee, Provides Written Responses Regarding Cuba to Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Jan. 23, 2017).

New U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, May Present a Challenge for Supporters of U.S.-Cuba Normalization

Nikki Haley, now the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., has dropped hints that she may present a challenge to supporters of U.S.-Cuba normalization. The first was in her testimony regarding Cuba before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.[1] The second was in her initial appearance at the U.N. on January 27.

Appearance Before Senate Foreign Relations Committee

On January 18, 2017, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held Nikki Haley’s confirmation hearing, and at the hearing or thereafter in writing she provided the following testimony regarding Cuba.

  1. Question: “Do you agree that the U.S. should help support private entrepreneurs in Cuba with training or other assistance, so they can build businesses, market their products and services, and compete with state-owned enterprises?”

Answer: “Unfortunately, Cuba does not have private entrepreneurs and working independently is not a right but a privilege granted only to supporters of the regime.”

Analysis: “That’s just wrong, as the BBC and a million other reputable sources confirm.”

  1. Question: “Do you agree that after more than half a century the U.S. embargo against Cuba has failed to achieve any of its principal objectives?”

Answer: “We should be clear about a few things. The goal of the embargo was never to cause regime change, but rather to raise the costs of the Cuban government’s bad behavior.”

Analysis: “That was a whopper, as this Voice of America op-ed, and a vast historical record shows.”

  1. Question: “Will you continue the recent practice of abstaining to the UN General Resolution pertaining to the statutory U.S. embargo on Cuba?”

Answer: “No.”

Analysis: “Too bad. Ambassador Samantha Power’s speech when the U.S. abstained on the embargo resolution last year was a truly great moment.”

  1. Question: “Do you support continued diplomatic relations with Cuba?

Answer: She submitted an 85-word response that according to the CDA, didn’t directly answer the question.

On January 24, the Committee approved her nomination, 11-2 (with negative votes from Democratic Senators Coons (DE) and Udall (NM)).

Action by the Senate

The full Senate followed suit the same day, 96-4 (with negative votes from Coons and Udall plus Democrat Senator Heinrich (NM) and Independent Senator Sanders (VT)) .[2]

The Committee Chair, Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN) supported the nomination with this statement: “Governor Haley is a fierce advocate for American interests. As South Carolina’s Governor, Nikki Haley is a proven leader. I believe she has the instincts that will help her achieve reform. Having run a state government, she has dealt with tough management and budgetary issues. I believe that experience will serve her well, and I strongly support her nomination.” He added, “I believe she knows the United Nations needs reform and change. We have a right to demand value for our money. I think our nominee has said she will demand that. . . . Experience shows that when we have strong U.S. leadership at the U.N. we can get results. As South Carolina’s Governor, Nikki Haley is a proven leader. . . . I believe she has the instincts that will help her achieve reform. Having run a state government, she has dealt with tough management and budgetary issues.”

The nomination also was supported by Senator Benjamin Cardin (Dem., MD), the Committee’s Ranking Member, who said, ““What Governor Haley lacks in foreign policy and international affairs experience, she makes up for in capability, intelligence, and a track record of building coalitions in South Carolina. Her nomination was surprising to many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, but I have been impressed by her forthrightness on core American values, her willingness to admit what she does not know, and her commitment to seeking the facts and speaking truth to power, whether within the Trump Administration or with an intransigent Russia and China in the Security Council.”

Ambassador Haley’s Initial Appearance at the U.N.

Ambassador Haley @ U.N.
Ambassador Haley @ U.N.

On January 27, only three days after her confirmation, she made her very first appearance at the U.N. General Assembly and delivered a blunt warning to every nation in the world. She said, “You’re going to see a change in the way we do business. Our goal with the administration is to show value at the U.N., and the way we’ll show value is to show our strength, show our voice, have the backs of our allies and make sure our allies have our back as well. For those who don’t have our back, we’re taking names; we will make points to respond to that accordingly.”[3]

Conclusion

First, her lack of knowledge regarding Cuba may not be surprising since her prior experience has been in state government, but it is a troubling sign that she may not be committed to normalization.

Second, her statement that she would not abstain on the forthcoming U.N. General Assembly resolution against the U.S. embargo (blockade) of Cuba is also troubling by itself. It is even more troubling when coupled with her recent statement at the U.N. that the U.S. would be taking the names of those countries that do not have the U.S.’ back and responding accordingly. That suggests that the U.S. may seek to take some kind of action against virtually every country in the world that supports that resolution.

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[1] Ctr. Democracy in Americas, Cuba News Blast (Jan. 27, 2017).

[2] Press Release, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Approved Nomination of Nikki Haley to be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (Jan. 24, 2017); Press Release, Corker Votes to Confirm Nikki Haley as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (Jan. 24, 2017); Press Release, Corker Statement on Haley Vote (Jan. 24, 2017); Press Release, Cardin Statement on Haley Vote (Jan. 24, 2017); Assoc. Press, Senate Confirms Trump’s Nominee for US Ambassador to UN, N.Y. Times (Jan. 24, 2017); Carney, Senate confirms Trump’s UN ambassador, The Hill (Jan. 24, 2017).

[3] Sengupta, Nikki Haley Puts U.N. on Notice: U.S. Is ‘Taking Names,’ N.Y. Times (Jan. 27, 2017).