Congratulations, Rex Tillerson. After an exhaustive vetting process by the demanding President-elect Donald Trump, you have been officially tapped to be his secretary of state. You beat out some very impressive candidates, including the man who will direct your Senate confirmation hearings, a former general who is habitually regarded as the best the United States has had in a quarter-century, and a former Republican nominee for president.
Still, Tillerson shouldn’t assume everything will be smooth sailing during his Senate confirmation process. Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee seem dead-set against the former oilman with ties to the Kremlin. Republicans only hold a one-seat majority on the Foreign Relations Committee, which means it will only take one GOP senator to tank his nomination (unless Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brings Tillerson’s nomination to the floor anyway). That senator could be Marco Rubio, the ultimate Russia hawk (“While Rex Tillerson is a respected businessman,” Rubio has written, “I have serious concerns about his nomination”), or it could be Rand Paul, who never shies away from a confrontation over America’s role in the world.
If Tillerson is to have any chance at squeaking by during his confirmation hearings, he needs to be prepared to answer these questions to the committee’s satisfaction.
Why are you so chummy with Vladimir Putin?
“Chummy” may not be the right word, but members of Congress are prone to exaggerations that fit their political narratives. In 2011, Exxon signed a $1 billion agreement with Russia’s Rosneft to explore oil and natural gas reserves in the Black Sea. That same year, Tillerson’s company signed a much larger deal that started developing oil operations in Russia’s section of the Arctic — a deal that Russian officials say could be worth as much as $500 billion in investments. He’ll need to explain all of this.
What about sanctions on Russia?
As CEO of one of the world’s biggest oil companies, Tillerson has made known his opposition to Western economic sanctions that prevented Exxon from operating within Russia’s energy sector at full capacity. As secretary of state, it will Tillerson’s job to maintain the same set of sanctions that he despised as an oil titan. Will he support keeping restrictions on Moscow until it completely and verifiably withdraws from Eastern Ukraine?
Do you support the Iran deal?
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is universally reviled among today’s Republican lawmakers. Not a single GOP member of Congress voted to approve the Iranian nuclear agreement when it came up for a vote in the summer of 2015. Now, nearly a year into its implementation, congressional Republicans are ready to introduce more sanctions bills on Iran in the new session. If Tillerson doesn’t give the right answer on the JCPOA and express his strong disagreement over Iran’s nefarious behavior, Iran hawks like Rubio, Jim Risch, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, and Bob Corker might have second thoughts.
Will you restrain your boss?
At times, the secretary of state will need to provide recommendations that he or she believes are the best courses of action – even if the president doesn’t like them. Will Tillerson be brave enough to stand up for his principles in policy debates or will he revert to being a yes-man?
Why are you the best pick for the job?
They may not admit it openly, but most (if not all) of the senators on the Foreign Relations Committee believe they would be a terrific secretary of state if given the opportunity. Tillerson will therefore need to find a way to smooth the hard edges, and explain clearly and humbly to his overseers why Trump thought he was the best candidate for the job. In other words, grovel to the masses.