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Here Are The Russia Hawks Who Could Kill Tillerson’s Nomination

Russia will soon become an axis of conflict between President-elect Donald Trump and the U.S. Senate. Trump may have a difficult time securing Senate confirmation for Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, his pick for secretary of state, because of Tillerson’s ties to Vladimir Putin and Exxon Mobil’s business interests in Russia. Furthermore, the Senate may soon launch an inquiry into possible Russian interference in the presidential election, something that Trump opposes.

Russia hasn’t been a focal point for policymaking in the Senate over the past several years outside of a few resolutions passed by unanimous consent. Therefore, there aren’t a lot of votes to indicate which senators might take the most hawkish positions toward Russia. However, we can look at two recent developments to get a sense for which senators might be most willing to hold the line against Trump.

First was a letter co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois that urged Trump to “continue America’s tradition of support for the people of Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression.” The letter, a pre-emptive rebuke toward potential Trump dovishness on Russia, was signed by 12 Republican senators and 15 Democrats, counting Portman and Durbin.

Then there’s the investigation into possible Russian meddling in the election, which today was (somewhat grudgingly) endorsed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. I searched news accounts and each senator’s Twitter feed and came up with a list of 16 Republican senators or senators-elect1 who have expressed support for such an investigation, including 13 who have done so since the Nov. 8 election.

The list isn’t necessarily comprehensive, since many senators have not been weighing in on the idea of an investigation until the past few days. It’s hard to find senators who are openly opposed to such an investigation, in fact, although a few, such as Texas Sen. John Cornyn, have downplayed the potential importance of Russia’s influence on the campaign.

Still, the senators who both called for an investigation and signed the Ukraine letter make for a preliminary list of Russia hawks. Seven Republicans fit this bill:

John McCain Arizona Yes Yes
Cory Gardner Colorado Yes Yes
Marco Rubio Florida Yes Yes
Pat Roberts Kansas Yes Yes
Rob Portman Ohio Yes Yes
Lindsey Graham South Carolina Yes Yes
Ron Johnson Wisconsin Yes Yes
Jerry Moran Kansas No Yes
Mitch McConnell Kentucky No Yes
Rand Paul Kentucky No Yes
Susan Collins Maine No Yes
James Lankford Oklahoma No Yes
Bob Corker Tennessee No Yes
Chuck Grassley Iowa No Yes, before election
Deb Fischer Nebraska No Yes, before election
Ben Sasse Nebraska No Yes, before election
John Boozman Arkansas Yes No clear public position
Johnny Isakson Georgia Yes No clear public position
Jim Risch Idaho Yes No clear public position
Jim Inhofe Oklahoma Yes No clear public position
John Barrasso Wyoming Yes No clear public position
Which Republicans are Russia hawks?

Highlighted senators are members of the Foreign Relations Committee

There aren’t a lot of surprises on that list. It includes three of the most well-known Russia hawks in the Senate — Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida — along with Cory Gardner of Colorado, one of the few Republicans to represent a state won by Hillary Clinton. There’s also Portman, Pat Roberts of Kansas and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

Three of those Republicans — Rubio, Gardner and Johnson — are members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will vote on State Department nominees before their names go to the entire Senate. Republicans will have just a one-seat advantage on the committee, so any GOP defections could potentially scuttle Tillerson’s confirmation.

FiveThirtyEight: Trump’s precarious position on Russia

Moreover, there’s a longer list of Republican senators, including several on the Foreign Relations Committee, who either signed the Ukraine letter or called for an investigation into Russian hacking but not both, suggesting that opposition to Trump on Russia could grow depending on how he manages the politics of the issue.

Could any Democrats side with Trump on Russia — or on Tillerson — in the event of Republican defections? That’s harder to say because Democrats haven’t necessarily felt the need to declare their support for the Russia investigation since the default is presumably that they’d be happy to go along with it (incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer supports the investigation). Still, here’s the list of Democratic responses we’ve identified so far:

Chris Murphy Connecticut Yes Yes
Ben Cardin Maryland Yes Yes
Gary Peters Michigan Yes Yes
Amy Klobuchar Minnesota Yes Yes
Jeanne Shaheen New Hampshire Yes Yes
Bob Menendez New Jersey Yes Yes
Sherrod Brown Ohio Yes Yes
Jack Reed Rhode Island Yes Yes
Chris Coons Delaware Yes Yes, before election
Sheldon Whitehouse Rhode Island Yes Yes, before election
Dianne Feinstein California No Yes
Mazie Hirono Hawaii No Yes
Angus King Maine No Yes
Debbie Stabenow Michigan No Yes
Claire McCaskill Missouri No Yes
Cory Booker New Jersey No Yes
Martin Heinrich New Mexico No Yes
Tom Udall New Mexico No Yes
Chuck Schumer New York No Yes
Ron Wyden Oregon No Yes
Mark Warner Virginia No Yes
Patrick Leahy Vermont No Yes
Bernie Sanders Vermont No Yes
Patty Murray Washington No Yes
Chris Van Hollen Maryland No Yes, before election
Richard Blumenthal Connecticut Yes No clear public position
Dick Durbin Illinois Yes No clear public position
Kirsten Gillibrand New York Yes No clear public position
Jeff Merkley Oregon Yes No clear public position
Bob Casey Pennsylvania Yes No clear public position
Which Democrats and independents are Russia hawks?

Highlighted senators are members of the Foreign Relations Committee

Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, probably the two most likely Democrats to support Trump, have neither signed the Ukraine letter nor taken a clear position on the investigation. Both come from states that rely heavily on energy production, which could make them more inclined to support Tillerson, the Exxon Mobil CEO.

Overall, however, Tillerson looks like a potentially challenging confirmation for Trump, especially if Trump is simultaneously burning political capital by opposing the Senate’s investigation into Russian election interference. Rubio, Graham and McCain have already expressed reservations on Tillerson, which would be enough to kill the nomination before the full Senate unless some Democrats voted for him.

One final consideration: Trump and his transition team have been coy about whether they actually plan to nominate Tillerson, so his name might just be a trial balloon or a decoy of sorts for Trump to stake out a negotiating position. For instance, if Trump were interested in choosing former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton as secretary of state, who himself could face a difficult nomination, retreating from Tillerson after floating his name could make Bolton appear to be more of a compromise choice.


  1. Not counting retiring Republican senators.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.