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US Senate confirms Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State

February 1, 2017

The former Exxon CEO's appointment came as the Senate gears up to debate Trump's pick for the Supreme Court. Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel will one of the first to meet the new US secretary of state in Washington.

USA Außenminister Rex Tillerson
Former ExxonMobil CEO, Secretary of State Rex TillersonImage: Getty Images/A. Wong

Falling nearly along party lines, the Senate voted 56 to 43 on Wednesday to confirm Tillerson as the next US Secretary of State, with four democrats joining Republicans in favor of the former ExxonMobil CEO.

Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia who voted in favor of Tillerson, argued that the former businessman would bring a "unique perspective to the State Department" and provide "wise counsel and objective advice to the president on our nation's foreign policy."

The vote followed January hearings in which senators voiced their concerns about Tillerson's lack of government experience and his record on human rights. Democrats and some Republicans were particularly wary of Tillerson's past ties to Moscow, an especially sensitive topic after a US intelligence agency report found Russia interfered in the presidential election.

Tillerson was sworn in at the White House later that day. "As I serve this president, I will always serve the interests of the American people at all times," he said from the Oval Office, as Trump and Vice President Mike Pence stood next to him.

"He left a really good job for this, I want to tell you," Trump quipped during the signing ceremony.  

Sigmar Gabriel stellt Jahreswirtschaftsbericht vor
Sigmar Gabriel will meet with Tillerson on ThursdayImage: Picture-Alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

Washington heats up

Tillerson's confirmation occurred as the relationship between Washington's two parties grew increasingly acrimonious and cooperation reached rock-bottom. Democrats accused Republicans of trying to rush through President Donald Trump's nominees without proper vetting while Republicans criticized Democrats for obstructionism.

After Democrats boycotted a Senate Finance Committee vote for proposed Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Health Secretary Tim Price, Republican committee members suspended a rule requiring the presence of at least one Democrat and voted 14-0 in favor of the two nominees.

But a separate walk-out by Democrats forced Republicans to postpone a different committee vote on Scott Pruitt, Trump's pick for head of the Environmental Protection Agency, whom Democrats object to due to his skepticism on the human causes of global warming.

USA Trump Ernennung Neil Gorsuch
Trump tapped Gorsuch to fill the Supreme Court vacancyImage: Reuters/K. Lamarque

Germany's Gabriel to meet with Tillerson

Not long after the announcement of Tillerson's confirmation, Germany's new Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said he would meet with the new secretary of state in Washington on Thursday.

"I'm hoping for a direct and personal exchange and will bring with me to Washington an offer of friendship and trust," Gabriel said on Wednesday. "We want to illuminate our view of things, our interests and our values to our American partners and look for a good, open and friendly dialogue."

Gabriel will be the first German politician to meet with a member of Trump's candidate in Washington since the new president's election. A meeting with Trump is unlikely, and it's also unclear if he will meet with Pence. 

'Go nuclear'

The bitter relations are not likely to improve as the Senate gears up to debate Trump's recently announced pick for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch. Democrats, who are still seething over Republican unwillingness to consider Barack Obama's nominee for the bench vacancy left by Justice Anton Scalia's death, will likely filibuster the proceedings.

In such a case, Trump has told Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell to use the "nuclear option" - that is, to change Senate rules so Gorsuch could pass on a simple majority vote in the 100-seat chamber rather than on the usually required 60-person supermajority vote.

"If we end up with that gridlock I would say, 'If you can, Mitch, go nuclear,'" Trump said on Wednesday.

Republicans currently hold 52 Senate seats.

cmb/jm (dpa, AP, AFP)