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Back in November, I wrote that Senate Republicans were likely to be a key check on Donald Trump’s agenda, particularly by preventing him from making especially weird and unsuitable Cabinet choices.
Trump’s choice of Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson to run the State Department is the first big test of this proposition.
Trump has announced a lot of appointments that liberals don’t like, but most of his choices for positions that require confirmation by the Senate have been fairly normal Republican choices – Betsy DeVos at the Department of Education, Elaine Chao at the Department of Transportation.
Even names you probably wouldn’t have seen in another Republican administration – like Steven Mnuchin at the Treasury – do not raise the sort of ideological or experiential flags that you would expect to bother Senate Republicans.
Tillerson is different, partly because of his favorable relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and partly because he lacks the sort of public-sector foreign-policy experience you would expect in a secretary of state.
Already, several Republican senators have expressed reservations. Marco Rubio (who sits on the Foreign Relations committee) says he has “serious concerns” about Tillerson. John McCain and Lindsay Graham have also expressed skepticism.
The key question is whether they will follow up those reservations by voting Tillerson down.
When I look at this pick, my qualms are bigger than Russia. I think the key question about Tillerson is: Why him?
Trump has almost no grounding in foreign affairs. He has expressed contempt for important institutions that support the peaceful international order, like NATO and the World Trade Organization. He has a tendency to handle relationships erratically, at home and abroad.
There is nothing about Tillerson’s highly successful business career that says to me that he is suited to the very particular task of keeping the Trump administration’s international relations at least somewhat normal.
State is a department in which Trump should be forced to stay inside the box, with an experienced appointee who we know can moderate his impulses and navigate any international controversies he might create, and who has the international stature to convey the idea that the US really does care about NATO and other organizations Trump might badmouth from time to time.
Sen. Bob Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, could serve this role. So could former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who previously served as deputy US trade representative and an ambassador to both Singapore and China.
Mitt Romney does not have a lot of traditional foreign-policy experience, but his preparation during his presidential runs and his international profile would allow him to fit in the “normal pick” box.
As few as three Senate Republicans voting against Tillerson could be enough to force Trump to take a mulligan and come back with somebody more normal.
We’ll see whether they do it.