Rex Tillerson was on Thursday sworn in as new US Secretary of State after being confirmed by the Senate despite concerns over the veteran oil executive’s close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The 64-year-old former chairman and chief executive of Exxon Mobil was confirmed by the Senate in a 56-43 vote. He was administered the oath of office by Vice President Mike Pence.
Tillerson, who has never held political office, faced intense scrutiny over his ties to Russia.
“Though you inherit enormous challenges in the Middle East and around the world, I do believe we can achieve peace and stability in these very, very troubled times,” President Donald Trump said at the swearing-in ceremony in the White House’s Oval Office.
His confirmation as the top US diplomat was welcomed by the White House and the Republican party but opposed by Democratic lawmakers in the Senate, who raked up his ties with Russia and President Vladimir Putin.
At the ceremony, Trump lavished praise on Tillerson for his “diplomatic skills”, and said it was time to bring a “clear-eyed focus to foreign affairs, to take a fresh look at the world around us, and to seek new solutions grounded in very ancient truths.”
“These truths include the fact that nations have a right to protect to their interests, that all people have a right to freely pursue their own destiny, and that all of us are better off when we act in concert and not in conflict. There’s rarely been conflict like we have in the world today -- very sad,” Trump said.
In his brief remarks, Tillerson thanked Trump for giving him the opportunity.
The former oil chief forged multibillion-dollar deals with Russia’s state oil company, Rosneft, and was awarded the Order of Friendship by the Kremlin in 2013.
In his Senate confirmation hearing, he admitted that the West had reason to be alarmed by Russian aggression, but he refused under questioning to label Putin a war criminal.
Tillerson’s confirmation was more contentious than those of his predecessors. The Senate confirmed President Barack Obama’s selections John Kerry 94-3 and Hillary Clinton 94-2.
One of the challenges that Tillerson now faces is to allay fears at the State Department over President Trump’s order to ban travel or immigration from seven mostly Muslim nations.
He will also be tasked with restoring relations with those affected countries as well as outraged European leaders. During his confirmation hearing, Democrats also raised concerns about how long Tillerson would recuse himself from decisions that could affect ExxonMobil once he became the top US diplomat.
In remarks on the Senate floor, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren said Tillerson’s “extensive and longstanding ties with Russia” meant that the US couldn’t trust him to be a strong advocate for their interests.
“Secretary Tillerson’s close personal and business ties with President Putin give me no confidence that he would be an effective force in America’s dealings with Russia,” said Democratic Senator Dick Durbin.
“There have even been reports that this administration is considering dropping sanctions against Russia. There is bipartisan opposition to that idea in Congress, which will conduct vigorous oversight of the State Department,” he said.
Image: US President Donald Trump with new US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accompanied by his wife Renda St Clair and Vice President Mike Pence at the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, US. Photograph: Carlos Barria/Reuters