The Senate confirmed Rex Tillerson to become Secretary of State on Wednesday after a confirmation vote that saw the former chief executive of ExxonMobil receive more opposing votes than any other secretary of state nominee in American history. With a 56-43 vote, three Democrats and one independent joined all 52 Senate Republicans in confirming Tillerson to become the U.S.’s top diplomat.
Senators Mark Warner (D-VA), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), and Joe Manchin (D-WVA) broke from the rest of their Democratic colleagues to confirm the nomination.
Tillerson takes over the State Department during a time of disarray and strife after the resignation of the department’s entire senior level of management last week, and after 1,000 diplomats signed a dissent cable in opposition to President Trump’s recent executive order temporarily barring citizens from seven countries from entering the United States, while halting the refugee resettlement program.
Tillerson, who is the first Secretary of State in modern history to have no previous foreign policy or national security experience, spoke briefly but favorably
of U.S. efforts to combat global infectious diseases at his nomination hearing in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month. Tillerson has some experience in initiating global health programs, forming the Africa Health Initiative out of the ExxonMobil Foundation in 2000. The initiative focused on malaria eradication and women’s empowerment, and partnered with USAID and the President’s Malaria Initiative to provide resources in 90 countries to advance women’s entrepreneurship, improve health, and promote clean energy solutions. The Exxon Mobil foundation provided grants – most less than $300,000 – to nongovernmental organizations, including Malaria No More, the United Nations Foundation, Friends of the Global Fight, Africare, and Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities.
Stating that malaria is a threat to company employees and the communities they work in, Tillerson has said the ExxonMobil Foundation contributes $11 million to anti-malaria efforts every year. He has also said the foundation has contributed $2.4 billion over a ten year period to “communities around the world.”
Tillerson has linked his support of global health and humanitarian efforts to the need for more energy, calling the expansion of access to electricity in Africa a “humanitarian imperative” for meeting “basic needs like clean water, cooking, sanitation, light, or for the safe storage of food and medicine.”
Tillerson served on the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Commission on Smart Global Health Policy, which concluded in a 2010 report that the U.S. “can better the lives of the world’s citizens and advance its own interests by investing strategically in global health.”
He received a global leadership award from the United Nations Foundation in 2011, and in his acceptance speech he called global health and poverty “obstacles that must be overcome to achieve future progress,” while praising public-private partnerships for addressing global economic and social challenges.