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Trump dares GOP Senate to reject Tillerson

Donald Trump’s selection of Rex Tillerson for secretary of state on Tuesday amounted to a dare to Senate Republicans to reject the ExxonMobil chief over his close ties to Russia.

Early signs suggest the GOP won’t defy the president-elect.

Barring new revelations about Tillerson’s past and connections with Russia, there are early indications that he will be confirmed. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he “looks forward to supporting” Tillerson, and several members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sounded positive notes about the nomination after it became official.

Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who was in the running for the job, said he told Trump on Monday night that “you’re making the best choice for the country and for you at this time.” Corker will oversee the confirmation process and wouldn’t explicitly predict Tillerson’s prospects, but he’s clearly optimistic about the energy executive’s confirmation.

“I’ve got to believe he’s very, very savvy. If I look at the people that were pulling for him in the national security community … his views on Russia are not out of the mainstream,” Corker said in a telephone interview on Tuesday afternoon. “This guy is highly impressive. This guy didn’t just get off the last turnip truck. Rex Tillerson’s got a good sense of the things that people are going to be concerned about.”

Still, Trump and Tillerson will have little margin for error. GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have all reacted critically to Tillerson’s business ties to Russia. It would only take three Republicans to sink him, if Democrats all voted no.

But no Republicans have said explicitly that they will oppose Tillerson. Though several Cabinet picks over the last several decades have withdrawn their names after being selected, only one has been rejected by the Senate — John Tower, George H.W. Bush’s choice for defense secretary, in 1989.

Rubio, who is emerging as a pivotal swing vote on Tillerson, said on Tuesday that he has “serious concerns” about the choice despite Tillerson’s business prowess. The onetime Trump rival, however, left himself room to back the selection.

Trump’s selection comes amid rising scrutiny of Russia amid reports that it interfered in the presidential election, further complicating Tillerson’s prospects. The president-elect has cast any caution aside, charging hard into a confirmation fight that could sap energy and early momentum from Republicans taking control of Washington for the first time in a decade.

“Is Mr. Tillerson so close to Putin … that he can’t push back when he needs to?” Graham said during a Facebook chat on Tuesday. “I’m gonna give him a fair shake but I got a lot of questions.”

Democrats agree, but said it was unclear whether they will unanimously vote against Tillerson either in committee or on the floor. In an interview on Tuesday morning, Foreign Relations ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said his committee would scrutinize Tillerson’s Russia ties, climate change views and foreign policy knowledge in places like South America and Africa.

“His relationship in regards to Exxon and Russia, it was more than just a business relationship. There’s a personal relationship there and we need to really drill down and understand whether he will put U.S. interests ahead of personal friendship. And Russia is so problematic to many of our issues. We need someone who is going to be very tough on Russia,” Cardin said. “I personally believe that there’s a lot of Republicans who are going to take their vote very seriously.”

Historically the Senate gives major deference to the incoming president to assemble his core team. And Republicans may be reluctant, in the end, to antagonize Trump out of the gate by tanking one of his nominees — especially given the close cooperation with him that repealing Obamacare and reforming the tax code will require.

Two senior Republican aides dismissed any suggestion that Tillerson might face trouble from GOP opposition. One said on Tuesday morning that while Rubio and others rattled their sabers ahead of Tillerson’s nomination, it’s very different for Republicans to attack Tillerson once his nomination is set in stone.

“He’ll have to make clear in his meetings with the committee members where he stands on things like Russia. But unless something really gross comes out in the hearings, I wouldn’t write this one off. He has a lot of friends,” a second senior aide said.

Tillerson needs just a simple majority to be confirmed and the GOP will have 52 seats next year. Democrats won’t know for weeks what their whip count is, but a senior party official said “it’s conceivable” that there will be a wall of partisan opposition but that it’s “too early” to know for sure.

McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Monday that he’s “optimistic” Trump’s previous nominees would be confirmed but declined to speculate on Tillerson’s prospects. But on Tuesday morning praised Tillerson “for forward-looking strategic planning, managing international partnerships and risk, and focused leadership around the world.”

Tillerson’s first hurdle will be on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a narrowly divided panel that includes hawks like Rubio and also the more libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul. Rubio said last weekend that “being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for” from a secretary of state, but a source familiar with Rubio’s thinking said he is not an automatic “no” vote. Paul, for his part, is less concerned with Tillerson than he had been with John Bolton or Rudy Giuliani.

“The fact that former Secretaries of State James Baker, Condoleezza Rice, and Robert Gates are recommending Mr. Tillerson carries considerable weight. I look forward to the hearings,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who opposed Trump during the election and is close to McCain.

The foreign relations panel is currently divided narrowly among 10 Republicans and nine Democrats, though McConnell and Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have yet to work out next year’s line-up. McCain previously served on the committee but is not currently on the panel.

Tillerson will need a majority to be approved. If his nomination stalls in committee, McConnell could try to bring him directly to the floor, but doing so would indicate Tillerson is in major trouble.

Trump’s wide-ranging search for a secretary of state has gained him some allies, including Corker and GOP Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, another committee member, who said that Tillerson “adds another world-class player to the team.”

Corker said that he will have a confirmation hearing in early January, which could put Tillerson on pace for a confirmation vote shortly after Inauguration Day.

“Some of the Democrats have sincere concerns. I was contacted by folks on our side who have some concerns,” Corker said. “The committee’s been run in an extremely bipartisan way. I can’t imagine people putting up procedural roadblocks for the secretary of state.”

Corker and Cardin have spoken about the nomination several times and Cardin said he could agree to early hearings but said it was difficult to predict how swiftly committee votes and floor consideration would proceed.

“I fully expect that we will have early hearings and I will cooperate with early hearings,” Cardin said. “What comes after those early hearings I can’t tell you … a lot depends on the information we get and the cooperation we get.”

Democrats are ready to accuse Republicans who back Tillerson of hypocrisy.

“For years, I’ve listened to my Republican colleagues in the Senate eviscerate President Obama for being too weak on Russia. No Republican who has called for a tougher line against Russia should ever be taken seriously again if they vote to put a Putin ally at the top of the State Department,” said Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a foreign relations committee member.

Tillerson has cultivated close ties with Vladimir Putin, winning the Order of Friendship from the Russian president in 2013. The Exxon chief also appeared with Putin to seal a $3.2 billion partnership with Russia’s state-owned oil company to develop Arctic oil and gas resources, a deal later put in limbo by Obama administration sanctions after Moscow annexed Crimea.

In a series of tweets, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) warned that “Trump and Tillerson need to know that Putin is Machiavellian and gets rid of [people] who expose him as such.”

It’s not just Tillerson’s business alliance with Putin that promises to raise concerns in the Senate. The Texan is a longtime critic of sanctions in general, portraying them as difficult to enforce effectively.

Elana Schor and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.

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