Senate confirmation hearings are foreign policy test for lawmakers

Rex Tillerson will face tough questioning from both sides of the political aisle on Wednesday in his bid to become secretary of state.

January 11, 2017 04:42
2 minute read.
James Mattis

US President-elect Donald Trump (L) and Vice President-elect Mike Pence (R) greet retired Marine General James Mattis in Bedminster, New Jersey, US,. (photo credit: REUTERS)

WASHINGTON – Capitol Hill awoke from its holiday lull this week to grill Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees, a time-honored tradition that usually claims a few scalps along the way.

President-elect Donald Trump is promising that will not happen this time, expressing confidence that all of his nominees will pass through a friendly Republican Senate. While that does seem likely, those nominees considered most vulnerable face questions over their foreign policy views, specific to the Middle East and Russia.

After retired Marine Corps general John Kelly testifies on Tuesday – a hearing expected to go smoothly given Kelly’s lifelong career in public service, and his status as a known quantity in the Senate – Rex Tillerson will face tough questioning from both sides of the political aisle on Wednesday in his bid to become secretary of state.

The former CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson has virtually no comments on record offering details of his views on the politics of the Middle East. He will face extensive questioning on Syria, Israel and Iran, and on his attitudes toward using sanctions as a tool of exertion in foreign affairs after previously opposing them while working in the oil and gas industry.

Tillerson is guaranteed to face scrutiny over his positions on Russia, after developing a close relationship with its president, Vladimir Putin, while at Exxon, and accepting Russia’s highest honor for a non-citizen, the Russian Order of Friendship, in 2009.

On Thursday, retired Marine Corps general James Mattis will take his turn. Nominated to lead the Pentagon, Mattis has established relationships with many of the senators who will be questioning him, and is likely to receive bipartisan support.

On the Middle East, Mattis is likely to face questioning on his career-long experience countering Iranian aggression in the region, and his efforts to convince the Obama administration – while he was still serving in the armed forces – to take action to prevent the country from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.

Mattis is also one of the only Trump nominees to have expressed support for a twostate solution between Israel and the Palestinians – likely a topic for his hearing, and an opportunity for the former general to expound on his past statements in more detail.

Also on Thursday, the Senate will consider Rep. Mike Pompeo for CIA chief. While he is expected to pass muster for several Democrats – and while his nomination has provided comfort to many in the intelligence community – the success of his confirmation hearing will likely be gauged by his answers to critical questions over the intelligence community’s assessment that Moscow orchestrated an influence campaign targeting the US presidential election, with the goal of electing his future boss.

Pompeo’s approach to those questions will be a difficult tightrope, as he will have to maintain the trust of the president- elect – who is denying the intelligence assessment out of fear it will delegitimize his victory – as well as the faith of the intelligence community itself, a part of which he will soon have to lead.

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