Rudy Giuliani professed his desires out loud. Mitt Romney wooed the president-elect over frog legs at a Michelin three-star restaurant in Manhattan. Retired Gen. David Petraeus pleaded his case on national television. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, among a host of others, traipsed through the camera-filled lobby of Trump Tower.
ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson entered through the Trump Tower back door (twice). He left as the nominee to be America’s top diplomat.
Donald Trump’s decision-making process for secretary of state — the Cabinet post that he and his advisers felt was the most important one — played out much as his campaign had. It was messy. There were rival factions. Loyalty was paramount, until it wasn’t. Trump chafed at the constraints of tradition. There were accusations of worry-worthy friendliness with Russia.
And all the drama unfolded on live TV — complete with a last-minute plot twist and a candidate no one initially saw coming.
“The Tillerson thing, I’m sort of in a fog about,” Giuliani told POLITICO on Tuesday. “I wasn’t really involved deeply in the process when that came along. I don’t know a lot about him. I knew about four or five of the others.”
Now the suspense continues, with the next act being a confirmation battle on Capitol Hill. But the selection process itself — it was Trump’s most high-profile decision after his selection of Mike Pence as his running mate this summer — is instructive for a president-elect who has never before held political office.
Trump had lots of inputs during the process, which was simultaneously haphazard and deliberative, but the final output rested ultimately with a man who has said for decades he is guided more by his instincts than anything else.
“He’s like a judge who listens to input from everybody and then issues his verdict. And then there’s no discussion, no dissent,” said one senior transition aide.
That’s what happened with Tillerson.
When Trump and Tillerson met in Trump Tower on Dec. 6, “they hit it off” immediately, as one transition official put it — two men who have made billion-dollar deals and boast the bona fides of having run multinational companies.
“He’s totally the Trump M.O.,” this official said. “Strong guy. … As soon as he met him, he told people that Tillerson is the kind of guy that walks in a room and commands respect. Liked Romney. Liked Rudy. But Tillerson was a stronger guy. He liked his strength.”
Added another adviser, “He liked the outsized, Texan, can-do swagger.”
Tillerson would be the presumptive pick within days and the official one within a week.
But it had been a long process to get there. Within days of the election, Giuliani was publicly pining for the job and has since confirmed that he turned down two other Cabinet posts. Quickly, stories surfaced about Giuliani’s out-of-office international business dealings and speechmaking.
“I told them to vet me, and nothing came out that showed any conflict, any irregularity,” Giuliani recalled. “That part of the process, where people speculated we had done improper things, bothered me a lot. That really annoyed me.”
Giuliani had been Trump’s most steadfast supporter in the darkest hours of the campaign, going on the Sunday shows to defend Trump after a 2005 tape emerged of him bragging about groping women and getting away with it because he was a star.
But the business dealings — and Trump’s reported unhappiness at Giuliani’s public dismissal of any post other than State — opened the door to other possibilities.
“He felt some loyalty issues over Rudy, and it was painful,” said one person close to Trump who spoke with him during the search process.
On Nov. 19, 11 days after Trump won the election, Romney traveled to Trump’s golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, for a meeting that, by all accounts, went extremely well. Trump’s team might have initially liked the symbolism of Romney paying homage to a president-elect whom he had opposed all the way through the election, but after the meeting, Romney quickly vaulted into serious consideration.
“He’s really, really good at storylines, at pushing storylines,” said the person close to Trump. “Romney was like Omarosa coming back in the second season of ‘The Apprentice.’ This was a fun thing to discuss.”
Inside the campaign, two competing factions developed. Romney was the preferred pick of Reince Priebus, Trump’s incoming chief of staff, as well as Vice President-elect Pence, according to transition officials. But those from Trump’s campaign itself — led publicly by former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and privately by former campaign CEO Steve Bannon — were in the anyone-but-Romney camp.
Dissent bubbled up by Thanksgiving, as Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee, two early Trump backers, went public in opposition. Then Conway said in television interviews that Sunday that selecting Romney would lead Trump’s supporters to “feel betrayed.”
“It’s just breathtaking in scope and intensity the type of messages I have received from all over the country,” Conway said of the opposition to Romney. While Conway said she was speaking on behalf of Trump’s voters, she was also voicing the internal concerns of some of the Trump’s own staff.
Trump felt trapped, according to transition officials and others, as he set up meetings with Petraeus, Corker and Romney again in the last week of November. It was then that Giuliani says he withdrew from the sweepstakes — albeit in secret.
“I would have taken the State job if it were nice and easy and I was the only candidate and it all happened very smoothly. I didn’t want it strongly enough to be in competition for it,” Giuliani said.
He submitted a letter of withdrawal dated Nov. 29 — the same day Trump and Romney dined together in New York. The letter didn’t go public until last Friday.
“They were telling people that I was in the running, and I allowed them to do that so they could have some cover. They didn’t want to be rushed into making the choice,” Giuliani said, adding that the only people who he knew were aware of the letter were Trump, Priebus, Bannon and Trump’s influential son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Romney, meanwhile, was doing everything he could, effusively praising Trump after their Jean-Georges dinner as “enlightening” and “engaging.” “He did something I tried to do and was unsuccessful in,” Romney told reporters that night.
The next day, on Nov. 30, Condoleezza Rice met with Pence in Washington, D.C., as the former secretary of state — who only a month before the election had called for Trump to drop out — was emerging a surprise influencer.
Rice and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who met with Trump on Dec. 2 in New York, both recommended that Tillerson be considered as secretary of state, sources said. (The person close to Trump, however, said, “This guy was on the radar screen earlier than that.”) Gates knew Tillerson not just as a business leader but also because both had served as president of the Boy Scouts of America.
“Trump seemed surprised and intrigued,” a source close to Gates said of the Tillerson suggestion.
That weekend, Trump formally expanded the list again, setting up meetings with Tillerson, retired Adm. James Stavridis and former Ford CEO Alan Mulally. As one Trump official told POLITICO at the time, “There’s got to be someone out there that can dazzle and wow. I just don’t think we’ve found that person.”
It happened Tuesday with Tillerson, as the wheels were soon set in motion for his selection.
A top political concern — especially amid accusations that Russia hacked the emails of a top Hillary Clinton aide and the Democratic Party to help Trump — was the ExxonMobil CEO’s close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. As the final line of Tillerson’s official biography on the ExxonMobil website reads, “In 2013, he was awarded the Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation.”
And as Tillerson joined the short list and then became the front-runner last weekend, even Republicans were raising questions about his relationship to Russia. “I don’t know what Mr. Tillerson’s relationship with Vladimir Putin was,” influential Sen. John McCain said Saturday on Fox News. “But I’ll tell you it is a matter of concern to me.”
Trump — never one to be dictated by his detractors — pushed ahead quickly. By Monday, it was a done deal. The formal announcement came Tuesday.
Gates and Rice, who have counted Tillerson’s company among their clients, were among the first and most prominent voices in the GOP foreign policy establishment to praise Tillerson when he was picked.
“Everyone knows this is going to be our toughest confirmation, but I don’t think Trump was going to change his mind at the end of the day,” said a transition official.
Later on Tuesday, Trump made a surprise visit to the lobby of his Manhattan skyscraper. There, he stood side by side with another visitor. It was Kanye West.
Tillerson was still nowhere to be seen.
Annie Karni, Eliana Johnson, Josh Gerstein and Jake Sherman contributed to this report.
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