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Rex Tillerson, Trump's pick for secretary of State, wins key support from GOP senators

 (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Rex Tillerson, the ExxonMobil CEO who is President Trump's pick for secretary of State, has overcome a major hurdle on his way to Senate confirmation.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who had resisted Tillerson's appointment, said on Sunday they have decided to support his nomination.

"Though we still have concerns about his past dealings with the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin, we believe that Mr. Tillerson can be an effective advocate for U.S. interests," the senators said in a joint statement.

They had previously suggested that Tillerson's close ties with Putin might disqualify him as America's top diplomat.

As an executive for 40 years with one of the world's largest energy companies, the Texas-born Tillerson, 64, cut numerous multibillion-dollar deals with the Russian government — as well as with other dictators and unfriendly rulers — and maintained what he described as a friendly relationship with Putin.

Tillerson opposed sanctions against Russia that Washington and the European Union imposed after Putin invaded Ukraine and seized Crimea in 2014. And he was the rare American to receive one of Russia's highest awards, the Order of Friendship, in 2013.

In his confirmation hearing on Jan. 11 before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Tillerson sought to allay fears of his critics. At least initially, he had tough talk for Russia, saying it had to be considered an adversary. Later, he wavered somewhat on sanctions and whether Russia's bombings of civilians in Syria should be considered a war crime.

Still, he apparently departed sufficiently from Trump's unusually magnanimous attitude toward Russia and Putin that McCain and Graham were willing to lend their support.

"Now more than ever, with America's friends growing more discouraged and our enemies growing more emboldened, we need a secretary of State who recognizes that our nation cannot succeed in the world by itself," McCain and Graham said.

They called for strengthening U.S. alliances across the globe, and said they had confidence that Tillerson "will be a champion for a strong and engaged role for America in the world."

By contrast, Trump has outlined an "America First" foreign policy that many experts have described as more isolationist than internationally engaging.

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