WASHINGTON — After weeks of buildup over a showdown with President Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of state, Sen. Marco Rubio on Monday backed down and voted for Rex Tillerson, ensuring the former ExxonMobil CEO will have a smooth confirmation with the overall Senate.
The Florida Republican reclaimed national attention for aggressively questioning Tillerson during a Foreign Relations Committee hearing earlier this month, asking if Russian President Vladimir Putin was a "war criminal," a term Tillerson avoided.
In voting favorably for Tillerson in the committee Monday, Rubio avoided a clash with Trump and his supporters. Rubio faced pressure from GOP leaders who are keen to get along with Trump after a tumultuous election. Tillerson, 64, personally appealed to Rubio.
"Had he opposed Tillerson, it wouldn't have been wise. It would have appeared as sour grapes," said Chuck Larson, a prominent Republican in Iowa who backed Trump. "Republicans across the country are very excited about President Trump and the immediate changes he is bringing to our government. I compliment Sen. Rubio for his thoughtful review."
At the same time, Rubio disappointed and outraged those who wanted to see a prominent voice of opposition to Trump on Capitol Hill.
The development underscores the altered political reality for Rubio, who clashed bitterly with Trump in the presidential primary and kept a distance even while supporting Trump as the nominee, maintaining he would be a check on executive power. On Monday, Trump signed an executive order withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal Rubio once championed but had lost favor with as Trump blamed such deals for killing American jobs.
Rubio said he still has reservations about Tillerson, who initially supported Jeb Bush's campaign for president.
"Despite his extensive experience in Russia and his personal relationship with many of its leaders, he claimed he did not have sufficient information to determine whether Putin and his cronies were responsible for ordering the murder of countless dissidents, journalists, and political opponents," Rubio wrote in a lengthy Facebook post hours before the Foreign Relations Committee vote.
Rubio cited other concerns, including Tillerson saying he would need more information before acknowledging human rights violations in China, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia.
But the Florida lawmaker added: "I must balance these concerns with his extensive experience and success in international commerce, and my belief that the president is entitled to significant deference when it comes to his choices for the Cabinet. Given the uncertainty that exists both at home and abroad about the direction of our foreign policy, it would be against our national interests to have this confirmation unnecessarily delayed or embroiled in controversy. Therefore, despite my reservations, I will support Mr. Tillerson's nomination in committee and in the full Senate."
In a statement at the meeting, Rubio said his paramount concern was that Tillerson's approach to foreign policy would be as a dealmaker. "I stand ready to help him succeed," Rubio said. Later, surrounded by reporters, Rubio said that it "remains to be seen" if Tillerson would be tough on Russia but that the nominee allayed other concerns.
No Republican voted against Tillerson on Monday, while every Democrat did, 11-10 in favor as a result. Had Rubio joined with Democrats, he would have complicated Tillerson's vote on the Senate floor but not changed the likelihood of confirmation. On Sunday, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who share Rubio's hawkish foreign policy stances, announced they would support Tillerson.
Rubio made a splash in December when Tillerson emerged as Trump's pick over more conventional choices, such as Mitt Romney. "Being a 'friend of Vladimir' is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState," Rubio wrote on Twitter.
Then came Tillerson's Jan. 11 appearance before the Foreign Relations Committee and tough questioning from Rubio. When the lawmaker pressed on Russian activity in Aleppo, Syria, and noted enemies of Putin have ended up dead, Tillerson demurred, saying he'd need more information.
"None of this is classified," Rubio shot back, his tone markedly different from the lighter touch of other Republicans on the panel, including chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee.
Rubio garnered much attention — as he entered the committee room Monday afternoon, photojournalists rushed to him — and will be closely watched as the Trump administration gets under way.
"I think he legitimately, sincerely was worried about some of the issues he brought up," said University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett. "But clearly, some of it was political. He really made it quite a show. I think he's proven he will ask tough questions but Republicans have unified party control and he doesn't want to ruin that early on. A few days past the inauguration is not the time to say Republicans are not on the same page."