President-Elect Donald Trump officially picked ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his choice to be secretary of state on Tuesday morning, setting up a contentious confirmation battle over the nation’s top diplomat.
Tillerson is likely to face extensive questions on Capitol Hill, as a number of prominent Republicans have already voiced concerns about his close ties to Russia and its strongman president, Vladimir Putin. He has no formal government experience, but spent years running ExxonMobil’s extensive international operations.
Should Tillerson not win confirmation, it would be an early setback for Trump’s presidency. A Cabinet nominee hasn’t been rejected by the Senate since 1989, and Trump will need Republicans to coalesce around Tillerson, something some, but not all, have expressed a willingness to do for the incoming president. Trump has just a small margin for error in the Senate to get Tillerson confirmed should Democrats stay unified against him, and a small handful of GOP senators, including Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and John McCain have emerged as possible swing votes skeptical of the ExxonMobil CEO.
Yet Trump seemed undeterred by the pushback, trusting his gut and choosing another nominee with significant business experience.
“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,” said Trump in a statement. “His tenacity, broad experience and deep understanding of geopolitics make him an excellent choice for Secretary of State. He will promote regional stability and focus on the core national security interests of the United States.”
Tillerson, 64, has worked at Exxon for more than 40 years, climbing up the ranks from an engineer to become the CEO and travel the globe. He has made a number of large deals, including the purchase of XTO Energy in 2009.
“I am honored by President-elect Trump’s nomination and share his vision for restoring the credibility of the United States’ foreign relations and advancing our country’s national security,” Tillerson said in a statement. “We must focus on strengthening our alliances, pursuing shared national interests and enhancing the strength, security and sovereignty of the United States.
Yet how he would approach the job of America’s top diplomat is unclear. In one of his few foreign policy comments, he said at a 2014 shareholder meeting that he was generally opposed to sanctions. He has often wrangled with foreign governments as the company grew its international drilling business.
Tillerson has over the years negotiated major business deals with Russia and was awarded the “Order of Friendship” by Putin in 2013. He turned heads a year later when he spoke at an energy summit in Moscow alongside Igor Sechin, a Russian oil executive and close Putin ally facing Treasury Department sanctions.
Yury Ushakov, Putin’s foreign policy adviser, said on Tuesday that all Russian officials, including Putin, enjoyed “good, businesslike relations” with Tillerson.
Senators have voiced varying levels of concern about Tillerson’s warm relationship with the Kremlin.
“When he gets the friendship award from a butcher, frankly, it’s an issue that I think needs to be examined. And again, that does not mean we should prejudge Mr. Tillerson,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said Sunday on Fox News.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs committee and another name on Trump’s list of candidates for secretary of state, released a statement Tuesday congratulating Tillerson on his nomination and noting that it was “an honor to be considered.” Corker spoke warmly of the Exxon CEO but did not outright pledge to support his confirmation.
“Mr. Tillerson is a very impressive individual and has an extraordinary working knowledge of the world,” Corker’s statement said. “I congratulate him on his nomination and look forward to meeting with him and chairing his confirmation hearing.”
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, another member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed reservations about Tillerson’s nomination.
“While Rex Tillerson is a respected businessman, I have serious concerns about his nomination,” Rubio said in a statement.
“The next secretary of state must be someone who views the world with moral clarity, is free of potential conflicts of interest, has a clear sense of America’s interests, and will be a forceful advocate for America’s foreign policy goals to the president, within the administration, and on the world stage. I look forward to learning more about his record and his views.”
Incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in his own statement that while Tillerson’s “worldview may not seem to be as dangerously interventionist” as that of hawkish former UN Ambassador John Bolton, “members of the Foreign Relations Committee, both Democrat and Republican, should be given ample time to study Mr. Tillerson’s entire record and worldview and then ask several rounds of extensive questions.”
Another area the oil chief could run into trouble is among evangelical conservatives, a group that buoyed Trump throughout the Republican presidential primaries and stuck by him through the general election campaign.
At least two influential leaders have voiced concerns about Tillerson’s nomination, pointing to Texan’s role in getting the Boy Scouts of America to reverse their long held policy against openly gay leaders.
Family Research Council president Tony Perkins called the possibility of Tillerson at the State Department “upsetting at best,” and talk radio host Steve Deace, said Trump was sending mix signals with his pick.
“In short, Tillerson could’ve been appointed SOS in a Hillary administration with this profile,” Deace wrote on Facebook.
Trump’s allies and aides continued to defend Tillerson, citing his business record and history of negotiating massive energy deals. He was recommended by Bob Gates and Condoleezza Rice, among others, Trump aides say, noting that he has respect in the diplomatic community. Rice and Gates have also both done work for Exxon through their consulting firm.
“It’s not like Vladimir Putin and Rex Tillerson are pounding down vodka at the local bar,” top aide Kellyanne Conway said on CBS on Monday. “They’re not intimate friends, but they deal with each other through business interests.”
In securing the secretary of state job, Tillerson leapfrogged a long list of candidates that was at times led by big-name frontrunners like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a staunch Trump loyalist, and 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, perhaps the president-elect’s most vocal Republican critic. Trump’s announcement that he will tap the ExxonMobil CEO to lead the State Department capped an unusually public vetting process, the leaderboard of which changed almost daily.
Romney, who not only opposed Trump during the Republican primary but also savaged him in a March speech as unfit for the presidency, went through an unusually public audition process that culminated in a Nov. 29 dinner with Trump and incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus.
Afterwards, Romney told reporters he was heartened by the conversation, and said they had a “wonderful evening” discussing world affairs. “These discussions I’ve had with him have been enlightening, and interesting, and engaging,” he said.
The 2012 Republican nominee even praised Trump for accomplishing something he could not: “He won.”
On Sunday, Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime friend and informal adviser, claimed during an appearance on Alex Jones’ radio show that the president-elect had allowed Romney to believe he might get the job just to “torture” him.
“Donald Trump was interviewing Mitt Romney for secretary of state in order to torture him,” Stone said. “To toy with him. And given the history, that’s completely understandable. Mitt Romney crossed a line. He didn’t just oppose Trump, which is his democratic right, he called him a phony and a fraud. And a con man. And that’s not the kind of man you want as secretary of state.”
Giuliani eventually said he dropped out because he was a “distraction.”
On Monday night, Romney posted on Facebook that he was honored to have been considered.
“My discussions with President-elect Trump have been both enjoyable and enlightening,” he wrote. “I have very high hopes that the new administration will lead the nation to greater strength, prosperity and peace.”
Tillerson, who was due to reach Exxon’s mandatory retirement age of 65 in March, would be the latest wealthy individual to join Trump’s Cabinet: He was paid $27.3 million last year and owns shares in Exxon worth nearly $240 million.
He likely faces wall-to-wall opposition among Democrats and environmentalist groups, who are expected to use the opportunity to grill Tillerson about ExxonMobil’s handling of climate change.
Tillerson’s confirmation battle could be further complicated by a sharp dispute over Russia’s involvement in the election, with CIA officials saying Russia tried to help Trump win. The president-elect has called those charges “ridiculous,” but lawmakers of both parties are calling for an investigation.
The left-leaning editorial boards of both The Washington Post and The New York Times were critical of Trump’s decision to tap Tillerson, with the latter questioning “why would Mr. Trump choose as his top diplomat a man whose every decision or action would be tainted by suspicion that he’s capitulating to Russian interests or those of the oil industry?”
Both newspapers admitted the possibility of some benefit from an outsider’s leadership at the State Department, but neither seemed convinced that those benefits outweigh the baggage Tillerson will bring to the job. The Post’s editorial board wrote that Tillerson should be confirmed only with transparency from Trump regarding any financial ties he might have to Russia and with assurances from the ExxonMobil CEO that he recognizes and condemns Russia’s “belligerent behavior.”
But others showered praise on Tillerson, including Gates.
“He would bring to the position vast knowledge, experience and success in dealing with dozens of governments and leaders in every corner of the world,” Gates said in a statement. “He is a person of great integrity whose only goal in office would be to protect and advance the interests of the United States.”
Alex Isendstdt, Ken Vogel, Andrew Restuccia, Brent Griffiths and Shane Goldmacher contributed.
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