The last wall of opposition to former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s confirmation as secretary of state has come tumbling down.
Early on Monday, Sen. Marco Rubio, the lone Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who might plausibly have voted against Tillerson, posted a statement on Facebook saying he plans to vote for Tillerson’s confirmation. That means Tillerson is nearly certain to make it through the committee vote, scheduled for Monday afternoon, which has 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats.
This comes on the heels of the two other Republican Tillerson skeptics in the Senate, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, declaring their support for his nomination on Sunday. With the votes of Rubio, Graham, and McCain secured, Tillerson is a virtual lock to be confirmed by the full Senate (the next stage after the committee vote).
This means Tillerson, a highly unconventional yet arguably well-qualified pick, will almost certainly be our next secretary of state. It also tells you a lot about how Republicans are thinking about “principled” opposition to President Trump.
The Republican who should have been Tillerson skeptics have caved
Rubio, Graham, and McCain had every reason to oppose Tillerson.
All three men are deeply committed neoconservatives, who believe that American foreign policy should center on promoting democracy and confronting dictatorships. Not surprisingly, then, all three are also longtime Russia hawks, who argue that one of the biggest failures of the Obama presidency was the failure to check Russian aggression by more forcefully responding to Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria and invasion of Ukraine.
“[Putin] himself said that the destruction of the Soviet Union — the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, and now he’s trying to reverse that,” Rubio said at a September 2015 GOP presidential debate. “He’s trying to destroy NATO.”
Tillerson, on the other hand, sees the world — and Russia in particular — very differently, having worked with a number of dictators to secure oil deals. The former head of Exxon’s Russia division, he landed the CEO job in part due to his history of making deals in Russia, at times working with Putin personally. He received the Order of Friendship, one of the Russian government’s highest awards for foreign citizens, in 2013, and he actively opposed US sanctions on Russia when the country imposed them.
So you can see why someone who sees Putin’s Russia as one of America’s top enemies would be skeptical of this record. That’s why McCain told reporters back in January that he’d support Tillerson when “pigs fly.” It’s also why Rubio absolutely hammered Tillerson on Russia during his confirmation hearings, getting visibly frustrated when Tillerson refused to say that Russia had committed war crimes in Syria.
“There’s so much information out there. It should not be hard to say that Vladimir Putin’s military has conducted war crimes in Aleppo, because it is never acceptable to target civilians,” Rubio replied. “I find it discouraging, your inability to cite that.”
After Tillerson flunked these and other Russia questions during the hearing, Rubio told reporters that he was “prepared to do what's right” when it came to the vote — a clear suggestion that he was open to voting against Tillerson’s confirmation.
In his Facebook statement endorsing Tillerson, Rubio said he till had serious reservations about the Exxon executive.
“Mr. Tillerson is likely to have a potentially unprecedented level of influence over the direction of our foreign policy,” he says. “I remain concerned that in the years to come, our country will not give the defense of democracy and human rights the priority they deserve, and will pursue a foreign policy that too often sets aside our values and our historic alliances in pursuit of flawed geopolitical deals.”
However, Rubio said, he was going to vote for Tillerson anyway.
“In making my decision on his nomination, I must balance these concerns with his extensive experience and success in international commerce, and my belief that the president is entitled to significant deference when it comes to his choices for the cabinet,” Rubio said. “Despite my reservations, I will support Mr. Tillerson’s nomination in committee and in the full Senate.”
This shows how Republicans capitulate to Trump
This sort of argument is strikingly similar to the way Rubio has talked about Tillerson’s soon-to-be boss, President Donald Trump.
During the 2016 primary, Rubio condemned Trump in nearly the harshest terms imaginable, casting him as an unstable man who might fire off a nuclear weapon.
"This is the most important government job on the planet, and we're about to turn over the conservative movement to a person that has no ideas of any substance on the important issues — the nuclear codes of the United States — to an erratic individual — and the conservative movement — to someone who has spent a career sticking it to working people," Rubio said in February.
Two months later, in April, Rubio endorsed this “erratic individual” for president, saying that he needed to defer to the party’s choice.
“I've always said I'm going to support the Republican nominee,” he said in a radio interview. “That's especially true now that it's apparent that Hillary Clinton is going to be the Democratic candidate.”
McCain, too, followed a similar line on the man who once insulted his military service. In March of last year, he issued a statement labeling Trump a threat to American national security.
“I would ... echo the many concerns about Mr. Trump’s uninformed and indeed dangerous statements on national security issues that have been raised by 65 Republican defense and foreign policy leaders,” McCain said. “I want Republican voters to pay close attention to what our party's most respected and knowledgeable leaders and national security experts are saying about Mr. Trump, and to think long and hard about who they want to be our next Commander-in-Chief and leader of the free world.”
In May, he endorsed Trump.
“You have to listen to people who have chosen the nominee of our Republican Party,” he said. “I think it would be foolish to ignore them.”
McCain would later flip-flop yet again, revoking his endorsement in October after the Access Hollywood “grab ’em by the pussy” tape went public. But overall, his approach fits Rubio’s pattern fairly well.
Both started with a principled opposition, seeing Trump’s priorities as a threat to the ideals they stand for. Then, after a bit of time, they cave without withdrawing previous criticism — citing loyalty to the party or the presidency, and arguing that this should triumph over their personal priorities.
This is a very worrying sign for those who hoped more traditional Republicans in Congress would be a bulwark against some of Trump’s more extreme policies. It offers a blueprint for total Republican capitulation to Trump.
There will always be some kind of procedural or political rationalization for supporting a Trump nominee or Trump policy priority, even when it directly runs against ideological ideals or traditional conservative values. Republicans can then attack Trump’s ideas, but hide behind this rationalization to reconcile their principles with their actions.
We should start the Trump administration, then, with the assumption that Republicans will end up backing him even if it runs contrary to what they claim to stand for. That’s what we saw during the campaign, from Rubio, McCain, and others — and it’s what we’re seeing from Senate neoconservatives on Tillerson.