WASHINGTON ― When Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) announced he would support Rex Tillerson’s nomination to be secretary of state, he helped President Donald Trump get his first choice in a key job and calmed a foreign policy establishment nervous about some of the other possibilities.
And he may have damaged his already tarnished reputation for not standing firm on his beliefs.
Rubio, more than any other Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had expressed deep skepticism about Tillerson because of the former Exxon Mobil CEO’s long relationship with Russia, as well as his unwillingness at his confirmation hearing to label Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal.
“It should not be hard to say that Vladimir Putin is a war criminal,” Rubio said during the Jan. 11 hearing, referring in particular to the Russian leader’s decisions on Syria.
A month earlier, two days before Trump officially announced Tillerson as his choice, the senator had forecast this disagreement when he tweeted, “Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState.”
On Monday, Rubio announced that his concerns had been partially alleviated by Tillerson’s agreement that the Russian annexation of Crimea was illegal and the nominee’s support for a strong NATO. As for the rest, Rubio wrote in a Facebook post, a president deserves the Cabinet of his choice. “Therefore, despite my reservations, I will support Mr. Tillerson’s nomination in committee and in the full Senate,” Rubio wrote.
“Well, his tough questioning was appropriate,” laughed John Weaver, a top aide on Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s presidential campaign who had praised Rubio after the confirmation hearing. “I’m disappointed that his vote didn’t back up the tough questioning.”
Rubio’s support meant Tillerson won the Foreign Relations Committee’s approval by a 11-10 party-line vote. It came after two other Tillerson skeptics, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, announced their intention to support him, as well.
Weaver said he was still willing to give Rubio the benefit of the doubt. “Who knows what Mr. Tillerson said in private about sanctions on Russia?” Weaver said. “Maybe he was able to clean a lot of that up.”
Rubio is already saddled with his eventual electoral endorsement of Trump despite notable attacks on him early last year, when Rubio was among the handful of GOP candidates left in the race for the nomination. Back then, Rubio called Trump a con man, suggested he might have wet his pants during a debate and insinuated that his “small hands” meant he had a small something else. (Trump defended the size of his genitalia in the next debate, claiming “there’s no problem, I guarantee.”)
The flip-flop on Trump followed Rubio’s turnabout on the 2013 Senate immigration reform proposal: Rubio famously co-sponsored the bipartisan plan and then repudiated it after the GOP’s conservative voting base revolted over the plan’s pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
This latest reversal, said one Republican consultant who supported a rival presidential candidate last year, only cements Rubio’s reputation.
“Insofar as it hurts him, it does so by reaffirming and baking in the idea that he’s a callow showboat,” the consultant said on condition of anonymity to discuss a prominent senator. “It reaffirms that he can’t be trusted to make good decisions.”
But Florida GOP consultant Rick Wilson, a Rubio supporter, said that it’s way too soon to predict how the Tillerson vote will play out and that the future of any Republican who supported Trump is now bound up with Trump’s performance in office. Wilson said Rubio will also be judged favorably because much of the mainstream foreign policy establishment sees in Tillerson a sensible adult who will serve as a check on an erratic president.
Tillerson had been recommended to Trump by former advisers to President George W. Bush, even as Trump was considering other candidates such as former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
“Who’s in the stack next? What are the other options?” Wilson said. “The choice of John Bolton or Newt Gingrich would have been seen as ‘let’s invite the crazy uncle over who we feed twice a year and put him in charge of the family.’”