Today the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will vote up or down on the nomination of Texas oilman Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state. If they do not approve him, his nomination will go to the Senate floor without a recommendation, which would make it more unlikely that the closely divided Senate – 52R-48D – will ultimately confirm him.
The key figure in the political and ideological drama surrounding Tillerson’s nomination is US Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). Tillerson, like the man who nominated him, has a history of favorable comments about Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin. While President Trump’s views about getting along with Russia have been political, Tillerson’s have been business. When CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson dealt with Putin, and many other world leaders, in an effort to buy or sell petroleum.
Rubio, however, sees the issue in moral terms. And he pushed, indeed pushed hard, to get Tillerson to agree that Putin is a “war criminal,” citing the mysterious deaths of his political opponents.
Is Rubio’s stance essentially a moral or ideological one, or is there political ambition in the mix of motives?
Barney Bishop, Tallahassee-based political analyst, says, “I surmise that he’s just very strong on foreign policy, on Cuba, China and Russia. And he’s not a big fan of Donald Trump,” who famously dubbed Rubio “Little Marco” during the unsavory GOP nomination battle. Bishop adds, however, “I was a little surprised at his tone at the Tillerson hearing.”
University of South Florida Professor Susan MacManus points out that Rubio “has a long history of making strong statements on foreign policy.” She adds, however, “Everybody expects [Rubio] to run for president someday … This is the first indication of showing his independence.”
A longtime Republican operative says of Rubio’s Tillerson grilling, “It’s not just political posturing, but I do think it is political posturing… He is trying to do things that won’t hurt him with the base, but allow him to maintain some independence from Trump.”
Part of Rubio’s political problem is that he and Trump were very cooperative allies in the General Election in Florida, with Rubio helping Trump with Cuban voters and Trump helping Rubio in their joint voter turnout efforts. Thus each man is indebted to the other, but then neither man is a major fan of the other.
The betting in Florida is that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing was the end of Rubio’s vocal opposition to Tillerson’s confirmation. Rubio is getting pressure from “a lot of Republicans in Florida and throughout the country who want him to support Tillerson,” notes Bishop; “ultimately, I think he will support Tillerson to be secretary of state.” The GOP operative agrees: “The hawks on Russia will end up voting for [Tillerson], but want their concerns on the record.” And MacManus notes, “It’s not likely that Rubio will be constantly against Trump.”
For the record, Rubio comes up for reelection in 2022, two years after Trump is either reelected or out of office. Stay tuned.