By Rebecca Savransky
President-elect Donald Trump has chosen Rex Tillerson as his nominee for Secretary of State, despite deep skepticism in the Senate over the Exxon Mobil CEO’s ties to Russia.
In a statement released by his transition team early Tuesday, Trump called Tillerson’s career “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,” the president-elect said, adding that Tillerson’s “tenacity, broad experience and deep understanding of geopolitics” make him an excellent choice.
“He will promote regional stability and focus on the core national security interests of the United States. Rex knows how to manage a global enterprise, which is crucial to running a successful State Department, and his relationships with leaders all over the world are second to none,” Trump added.
Trump in a tweet later called Tillerson “one of the truly great business leaders of the world.” I have chosen one of the truly great business leaders of the world, Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, to be Secretary of State. — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 13, 2016 Tillerson, who met with the president-elect Saturday at Trump Tower, jumped to the front of the pack of candidates under consideration for the post in recent days.
Tillerson said in a statement early Tuesday that he shares Trump’s vision for “restoring the credibility of the United States’ foreign
relations and advancing our country’s national security.”
“We must focus on strengthening our alliances, pursuing shared national interests and enhancing the strength, security and sovereignty of the United States,” Tillerson said. Tillerson’s close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, have prompted some critics to raise concerns about his nomination.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Tillerson negotiated an energy partnership with Putin in 2011 that the Russian president said could be worth $500 billion.
The following year, Tillerson received the Russian Order of Friendship, one of the highest awards the country bestows upon foreign nationals.
Reuters reported earlier this year that the Exxon Mobil deal with Russia had been put on hold due to sanctions levied against the Kremlin for its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The company has said it intends to resume the deal after sanctions are lifted — a process that Tillerson could help expedite as secretary of State.
Sen. John McCain is among Tillerson’s critics, expressing concern during an interview on Sunday over his ties to Putin. “I don’t know what Mr. Tillerson’s relationship with Vladimir Putin was, but I’ll tell you it is a matter of concern to me,” McCain said
during an interview with Fox News.
In another interview on Sunday, the Arizona senator blasted Putin as “a thug,” “a murderer,” and “a killer.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also said on Twitter on Sunday that being “ ‘a friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from” the next secretary of State.
Democrats also sounded the alarm about Tillerson’s ties to Putin, stopping short of pledging to outright block his nomination, however.
“If Tillerson is the [nominee], I look forward to a meeting & hearing process. But anyone who has opposed our Russia sanctions is problematic,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said Monday. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) also said he is “deeply concerned” about the nomination, while Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) called the pick “alarming and absurd.”
Former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin also weighed in over the weekend, accusing Trump of not being “a loyal American.”
He said on Twitter before the announcement of the nomination that the president-elect identified a secretary of State candidate “unlikely to oppose Trump’s alignment with Putin.”
Aides to Trump, though, have been seeking to ensure the American people that Tillerson is qualified for the post. Incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus in an interview Sunday called Tillerson “absolutely” qualified to be the nation’s chief diplomat, saying the Exxon CEO is one of the most “preeminent business people” in the world.
“It’s not just business deals,” Priebus said during an interview Sunday on NBC’s “Meet The Press.” “It’s an extensive knowledge of our relationships across the globe, and extensive knowledge of international law, and extensive knowledge of how deals are put together in places of the world that are very sensitive, and intergovernmental relationships that are very unique to Rex Tillerson.”
He also said he doesn’t think “talking to people having relationships is a bad thing.” The nomination comes after a secret CIA assessment concluded Russia intervened in the U.S. presidential election to help Trump win the White House. Trump and his aides have blasted the report, which the president-elect in an interview Sunday called “ridiculous” and “just another excuse.”
But a bipartisan group of senators on Sunday said the reports of Russian interference in the U.S. election should “alarm every American,” adding that recent cyberattacks “have cut to the heart of our free society.” In a statement, the senators called for an investigation.
If confirmed, Tillerson would deal with questions regarding Russia, including whether to maintain sanctions on the country, The New York Times reported. He has criticized sanctions in the past for their affects on Exxon’s investments in the country.
“We always encourage the people who are making those decisions to consider the very broad collateral damage of who are they really harming with sanctions,” Tillerson told shareholders at the company’s 2014 annual meeting, according to the Times.
Tillerson has spent the past 41 years at Exxon. He started at the company as a production engineer. In 2006, Tillerson assumed the role of chairman and chief executive at Exxon Mobil.
On the issue of climate change, some of Tillerson’s comments suggest he could have a different opinion than the president-elect, though Trump has said he is open-minded on the issue.
Tillerson told shareholders in May that the company believes “that addressing the risk of climate change is a global issue,” according to the Times. He reportedly called the threat of climate change “real” and “serious,” according to The Washington Post.
Others who were previously considered for the position of secretary of State included 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, former ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), retired Gen. David Petraeus and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Romney confirmed late Monday that he would not be Trump’s choice for the position. “It was an honor to have been considered for Secretary of State of our great country, “ the 2012 GOP presidential nominee said in a post on Facebook.
Priebus had defended Romney while he was in the mix, while former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway was publicly critical of him and questioned his loyalty to Trump.
Another faction of Trump’s team backed Giuliani, a close ally to Trump, for the role. But it was reported last week that the former mayor had removed himself from consideration for any Cabinet position.