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Senate Confirms Rex Tillerson As Secretary Of State In Narrow Vote


President Trump now has a secretary of state. Rex Tillerson was confirmed by the Senate this afternoon with just three Democrats voting in favor. The former ExxonMobil CEO has a tough job ahead as he's set to lead a State Department that has already been sidelined by the Trump administration. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Tillerson arrives at the State Department at a time of unease. Sources say 900 State Department employees have signed a dissent memo criticizing President Trump's executive order on refugees and visas. Several longtime diplomats have been forced out without replacements named. One of them, Tom Countryman, gave a powerful retirement speech yesterday and spoke this morning on NPR.


TOM COUNTRYMAN: If you do foreign policy without the input of professionals, it is by definition an amateur foreign policy.

KELEMEN: Countryman did not mention Tillerson or President Trump in his farewell remarks, but he did pointedly say, quote, "diplomacy is not a business." The 35-year career diplomat says many Americans don't understand what the State Department does. Professionals serve both Republican and Democratic administrations. And he argues this White House would have been better off if it had sought more advice before suspending the refugee program and barring citizens from seven mainly Muslim countries.


COUNTRYMAN: The effect of it has been to immediately damage our relations with a number of countries as well as to call into question an effort that we've been leading, which is to blunt the social media public relations offensive of Daesh, of these so-called Islamic State.

KELEMEN: When the White House heard about the dissent cable on this topic, Spokesman Sean Spicer called on the, quote, "career bureaucrats to get with the program or go." He explained it this way today.


SEAN SPICER: The point that I was making then is that if you believe so deeply that the policy is offensive to you, you have to understand that the job - the way our government works is we elect a president. That President gets to carry through their agenda that they set out with the American people during the campaign.

KELEMEN: The State Department's manual says there can be no retribution for employees who use the dissent channel, and some in Congress concerned about Spicer's comments are now looking into ways to codify these protections. The White House is not making Tillerson's job easy, says Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois.


DICK DURBIN: The executive orders issued by the president without consultation with the Department of State, judging NATO to be obsolete in his Twitter and then having a relationship with Mexico where the president is canceling trips to the United States, not to mention other things said about China and other countries - it's an awesome challenge.

KELEMEN: And he wonders if Rex Tillerson is up for that challenge. Supporters of Tillerson see him as an experienced businessman who has no illusions about the world. But Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, is not sure what influence the new secretary of state will have.


BEN CARDIN: And we cannot lose sight of the fact that he will be carrying out the foreign policy of the most dangerous, unstable, thin-skinned and inexperienced president we have seen on foreign policy issues and other issues.

KELEMEN: Cardin's office is also worried that at the same time the Senate is backing Tillerson, Congress is rolling back legislation that ExxonMobil long opposed. That is the Cardin-Lugar Bill that requires energy and mineral industries to be more transparent in their dealings with foreign governments. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.