WASHINGTON ― Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) declared Sunday that they will be voting to confirm former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. Tillerson’s close business ties with Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, had troubled senators from both parties ― especially foreign policy hawks such as McCain.
“Though we still have concerns about his past dealings with the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin, we believe that Mr. Tillerson can be an effective advocate for U.S. interests,” read a joint statement from McCain and Graham. “Now more than ever, with America’s friends growing more discouraged and our enemies growing more emboldened, we need a Secretary of State who recognizes that our nation cannot succeed in the world by itself.”
McCain spoke about his intentions Sunday on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
“I will be voting in favor of his nomination,” he said. “I have had numerous conversations with him. And, again, my concerns have been about our relations with Russia. And his past relations, I believe ― and I’m very cautious about this ― but I believe that Mr. Tillerson understands the importance of a steadfast and strong relationship.”
Stephanopoulos pressed McCain on how Tillerson assured him. “Well, he talked to me a lot about his views about Russia, about the events that have taken place, about the fact of what his duties were as a head of one of the world’s largest corporations,” the senator explained.
McCain added: “Listen, this wasn’t an easy call. But I also believe that, when there’s doubt, the president, the incoming president, gets the benefit of the doubt. And that’s the way I have treated every president that I have had the obligation to vote for or against as a member of the United States Senate.”
On “Face the Nation,” Graham did not touch on Russia as a factor in his decision.
“In my office visit, [Tillerson] said that when America doesn’t lead, other people will and the vacuum is always filled by bad actors,” Graham explained. “He said that we have to have a foreign policy that engages the world.”
Tillerson’s ties to Putin and to Russia run deep. If Trump decides to lift sanctions against Russia, Exxon Mobil could stand to reap billions. The New York Times recently outlined Tillerson’s evolving relationship with Putin and their deals:
Mr. Putin consolidated his control over Russia’s oligarchs, Mr. Tillerson underwent a profound change of outlook. He came to realize that the key to success in Russia, a country deeply important to Exxon’s future, lay in establishing personal relationships with Mr. Putin and his friend and confidant, Igor Sechin, the powerful head of Rosneft, the state oil company.
And as Mr. Tillerson and other oil executives pivoted from the private sector to the state oil company, the criticism that they had directed toward the Kremlin dried up. The payoff for Exxon was immense: a $500 billion joint venture in 2011 to drill for oil on the Arctic shelf and the Black Sea and another huge deal to develop shale oil deposits in Siberia. Those projects were shelved in 2014, after the West imposed sanctions on Russia for Mr. Putin’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine.
The allegations that Putin had personally directed meddling into the presidential election only further put Tillerson’s confirmation at risk.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) remains a key holdout. It’s still unclear how he will vote on Tillerson.