(RFE/RL) — U.S. President Donald Trump swore in his new Secretary of State, former ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson, saying it is “time to bring a clear-eyed focus to foreign affairs.”
“Your whole life has prepared you for this moment,” Trump told Tillerson at a White House swearing in ceremony on February 1. Trump praised the executive’s extensive experience in dealing with foreign governments such as Russia as head of the giant oil company and described that as an asset that prepared him to become the nation’s top diplomat.
Earlier, the Senate voted 56-43 to confirm Tillerson. Four Democrats joined all 52 Republicans in approving him.
Tillerson’ nomination has been shadowed by his work as the head of ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company by market value. As CEO, Tillerson oversaw major drilling and exploration around the world, including in Russia.
While Trump and many Republicans saw that as an asset, it worried some Senate Democrats, who charged he would be overly conciliatory to Russia and seek to undo economic sanctions imposed over Moscow’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea and its active support for separatist militants in eastern Ukraine.
ExxonMobil was working with the Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft on a massive, multibillion-dollar Arctic drilling project when the administration of then-President Barack Obama placed sanctions on Russia in 2014.
ExxonMobil later said the move was expected to end up costing it as much $1 billion.
At his confirmation hearings before a Senate committee last month, Tillerson portrayed Russia as a dangerous and destabilizing global actor that disregards U.S. interests.
But he also said Moscow was not unpredictable and that Washington should improve its understanding of the Kremlin’s thinking.
Tillerson’s backers say his experience running a huge multinational company that employs nearly 84,000 employees makes him eminently qualified to run the sprawling diplomatic bureaucracy of the State Department.
Trump, for his part, has hailed Tillerson’s background in the private sector, saying it makes him a capable negotiator.
Tillerson will take the helm of the State Department just as hundreds of State Department employees have signaled open criticism of the Trump administration, in particular a recent executive order temporarily banning refugees and migrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.
The ban prompted nearly 1,000 U.S. Foreign Service officers and department employees this week to sign a “dissent memo” — an official channel within the State Department that diplomats and others can use to express opposition to policies.
The ban has also sparked protests around the United States and the world.
The vote came as pressure increased on Democrats to slow or block Trump’s other cabinet nominations, amid concerns over possible ethical conflicts and Trump’s policy priorities.