Exxon Mobil Corp chief executive officer Rex Tillerson will be nominated as president-elect Donald Trump’s secretary of state, setting up a potential confirmation battle with US lawmakers who have questioned the oilman’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“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 said in a statement yesterday.
Tillerson said that he will focus on restoring America’s credibility on the international stage.
“We must focus on strengthening our alliances, pursuing shared national interests and enhancing the strength, security and sovereignty of the US,” Tillerson said in the statement.
The oil executive beat out several high-profile candidates for the job, including Trump loyalist and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who took his name out of the running, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who had been a Trump critic during the campaign. Romney announced on Monday that he was no longer in the running to be America’s chief diplomat.
Tillerson, an Exxon lifer and University of Texas-trained engineer who hits Exxon’s mandatory retirement age of 65 in March, has accepted Trump’s offer. He would be the first oil executive and only the second Texan to lead the State Department.
Tillerson would add to a cabinet increasingly full of millionaires and billionaires, including Commerce Secretary nominee Wilbur Ross, whose fortune is estimated at about $2.9bn. Tillerson was paid $27.3mn in salary, bonus, stock awards and other compensation in 2015; his 2.6mn shares of Exxon common stock had a value of about $228mn as of early December.
Word of Tillerson’s possible nomination was circulated even before his December 5 visit to meet the president-elect at Trump Tower partly to see how the markets would react, according to a person familiar with the transition who requested anonymity because the information hasn’t been made public.
The prospect of a Tillerson nomination has already drawn some objections from lawmakers in both parties, who expressed concern about his two decades of dealings with Putin at a time when possible Russian interference in the US election is under scrutiny. That suggests that the Exxon executive could face a messy Senate confirmation fight. Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida were among those who said they had questions about Tillerson’s dealings with Putin.
Confirmation hearings may also become a proxy fight over Trump’s position that Putin is an effective leader with whom he can reach agreements, a stance widely unpopular among lawmakers in both parties.
Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said yesterday in a statement that he congratulated Tillerson and looked “forward to meeting with him and chairing his confirmation hearing.” Corker said in the statement that the committee will hold a hearing on Tillerson’s nomination in early January.
“Mr Tillerson is a very impressive individual and has an extraordinary working knowledge of the world,” said the Tennessee Republican, who had also been in the running for the post.
Added to the mix is a looming inquiry into Russian meddling in the election. The Washington Post reported on Friday that the CIA has told senators that Putin’s government was actively seeking to help Trump win the election — a step beyond an earlier finding that the goal was to undermine the credibility of the US political process.
President Barack Obama has ordered a full review of the evidence of Russian hacking. Trump has rejected the idea that Russia has been pinpointed as the source of the hacks of Democratic Party servers.
David Mortlock, a former director of international economic affairs on Obama’s National Security Council, said a Tillerson nomination would extend a trend of the US pursuing “economic statecraft” that began under Hillary Clinton, who Trump defeated in the presidential contest, when she was secretary of state.
“It ironically continues something that really started in the Clinton State Department which is economic statecraft and the fact that US CEOs, US companies have been some of our best diplomats overseas and the US brand is an important part of US diplomacy and US representation,” Mortlock said.
Kellyanne Conway, a top Trump adviser, said on Friday on Fox News that those who were considered by Trump also included Alan Mulally, the former CEO of Ford Motor Co, former CIA director David Petraeus, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, and Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican.
“It was an honor to have been considered for Secretary of State of our great country,” Romney said in a Facebook post on Monday acknowledging he would not be named to the job. “My discussions with President-elect Trump have been both enjoyable and enlightening. I have very high hopes that the new administration will lead the nation to greater strength, prosperity and peace.”
Reince Priebus, who has been named Trump’s chief of staff, said on Fox News yesterday that Trump chose Tillerson because of his interpersonal skills, his track record in business and a shared vision on international issues.
“At the end of the day, it’s putting America first, and Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson had a connection on that issue,” said Priebus, who is currently chairman of the Republican National Committee. “We’re excited about today and what Rex Tillerson is going to bring to the table.”
Priebus also said Tillerson’s history with Putin demonstrated toughness.
“The truth is having relationships with people is not a bad thing,” he said. “We have a lot of problems in this world and we’re not going to solve those problems by pretending that people don’t exist.”
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