Trump announced Tuesday his selection of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as top US diplomat. Congress is worried about his close ties with Russia.
President-elect Donald Trump announced Tuesday he has settled on ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state, saying that he’s “among the most accomplished business leaders and international deal makers in the world.”
“Rex Tillerson’s career is the embodiment of the American dream. Through hard work, dedication and smart deal making, Rex rose through the ranks to become CEO of ExxonMobil, one of the world’s largest and most respected companies,”Trump said in a predawn news release from Trump Tower in New York.
“Rex knows how to manage a global enterprise, which is crucial to running a successful State Department,” Trump said of his latest — and much-discussed — Cabinet pick.
In an accompanying statement, Tillerson said he was “honored” by his selection and shares Trump’s “vision for restoring the credibility of the United States’ foreign relations and advancing our country’s national security.”
Trump also said that as the nation’s top diplomat, Tillerson would be a “a world-class leader” working on behalf of the American people.
Tillerson, however, has close ties to Russia, and his selection sets up a potential Senate confirmation fight.
Bringing the long secretary of state audition process to an end, Trump brushed aside concerns about Tillerson’s close ties to Moscow.
Close Ties to Russia’s Putin
Tillerson has connections with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And on Capitol Hill, leading Republicans have already expressed anxieties about Tillerson as they contend with controversial intelligence assessments saying Russia interfered with the US presidential election to help Trump.
But two meetings with the oil executive impressed Trump, who called Tillerson a “world class player” in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.” In the interview, Trump pointed to Tillerson’s deep relationship with Moscow as a selling point. As ExxonMobil’s head, he maintained close ties with Russia and was awarded by President Vladimir Putin with the Order of Friendship in 2013, an honor for a foreign citizen.
For weeks, Trump has considered other candidates, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who leads the Foreign Relations Committee. Romney wrote on Facebook Monday that it “was an honor to have been considered” for the job.
In the transcript of his interview with journalists, which was released Tuesday in Moscow, Putin said, “It’s widely known that the elected president of the United States has publicly called for the normalization of the Russian-American relationship. We cannot but support this.” Putin added that he thought a meeting with Trump would be more likely after the January inauguration.
“We understand it will not be a simple task considering the extent of degradation of the Russian-American relationship,” Putin said. “But we are prepared to do our bit.”
Tillerson’s Immediate Challanges
If confirmed by the Senate, Tillerson’s test will be whether his corporate deal-making skills translate into the delicate world of international diplomacy. He would face immediate challenges in Syria, where a civil war rages on, and in China, given Trump’s recent suggestions that he could take a more aggressive approach to dealing with Beijing.
A native of Wichita Falls, Texas, Tillerson came to ExxonMobil as a production engineer straight out of the University of Texas at Austin in 1975 and never left. Groomed for an executive position, he moved up in the rough-and-tumble world of oil production, holding posts in the company’s central United States, Yemen and Russian operations.
Early in the company’s efforts to gain access to the Russian market, Tillerson cut a deal with state-owned Rosneft. The neglected post-Soviet company didn’t have a tremendous amount to offer, but Exxon partnered with it “to be on the same side of the table,” Tillerson said, according to Private Empire, an investigative history of Exxon by Steve Coll.
Tillerson, who became CEO on Jan. 1, 2006, is expected to retire in 2017. His heir apparent, Darren Woods, was put in place a year ago, so there would be virtually no additional disruption to Exxon’s succession plans if Tillerson becomes secretary of state.