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Rex Tillerson confirmed as US secretary of state

Fifty-six senators voted to confirm Tillerson while 43 objected, largely along party lines
Senators had expressed concerns over Tillerson's ties to Russia after the executive spent years there working for Exxon Mobil (Reuters)

The US Senate confirmed Rex Tillerson as President Donald Trump's secretary of state on Wednesday, filling a key spot on the Republican's national security team despite concerns about the former Exxon Mobil chief executive officer's ties to Russia.

In the vote, 56 senators backed Tillerson, and 43 voted no. The tally was largely along party lines, with every Republican favouring Tillerson, along with four members of the Democratic caucus, Senators Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin and Mark Warner as well as Angus King, an independent.

Democratic Senator Chris Coons did not vote.

Senate Democrats had tried, but failed, to delay the vote because of Trump's executive order banning immigration from seven mostly Muslim countries and temporarily halting the entry of refugees.

They said they wanted to ask Tillerson more questions about the issue after Trump signed the order on Friday.

Senators had also expressed concerns over Tillerson's ties to Russia after the executive spent years there working for the oil company. Some faulted him for failing to promise to recuse himself from matters related to Exxon Mobil businesses for his entire term as secretary of state, rather than only one year required by law.

Republicans said they thought Tillerson would be a strong leader as the country's top diplomat. They also said it was important to fill key slots on Trump's national security team quickly.

Tillerson takes control of a State Department that has many career diplomats expressing deep concern about Trump’s executive order on immigration. On Tuesday, around 1,000 officials from US missions across the globe submitted a "dissent cable" through an official channel, decrying Trump's ban as an affront to American values.

The State Department "dissent channel" has existed since the era of the Vietnam War to allow diplomats to question official policy, but the scale of the protest is unprecedented.

One official, speaking to AFP condition of anonymity, warned a bureaucratic "insurgency" against Trump is getting under way. Others spoke of colleagues bursting into tears.

Tillerson has not made his views known on Trump's executive order, but the White House's response was uncompromising. 

Trump's spokesman Sean Spicer said the travel restrictions would help weed out extremists and keep America safe.

Spicer also said the dissident diplomats "should either get with the program or they can go," in a news conference.

His threat outraged many at the State Department, who argue that their in-house experts should have been consulted before the order was signed.