U.S. President-elect Donald Trump announced on Tuesday Exxon Mobil Corp Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson as his choice to lead the State Department, praising him as a successful international dealmaker who heads a global operation.
Tillerson’s experience in diplomacy stems from making deals with foreign countries for Exxon, the world’s largest energy company, although questions have been raised about his relations with Russia.
Tillerson has claimed to have a “very close relationship” with Russian President Vladimir Putin and will have deep knowledge of the country’s power structure, having led ExxonMobil into a rare oil exploration deal with Russia’s state-owned energy company.
“He will be a forceful and clear-eyed advocate for America’s vital national interests and help reverse years of misguided foreign policies and actions that have weakened America’s security and standing in the world,” Trump said in a statement.
Like Trump, Tillerson has never held public office. But he said he shared the president-elect’s “vision for restoring the credibility of the United States’ foreign relations and advancing our country’s national security.”
Trump picked Tillerson, 64, after the Texan was backed by several Republican establishment figures, including former Secretary of State James Baker, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a senior transition official said.
Rice and Gates, who have worked for Exxon as consultants, both issued statements of support on Tuesday.
Their support is seen as crucial to helping Tillerson get past a possibly contentious Senate confirmation battle likely to focus on his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, who also was under consideration for the secretary of state job, said in a statement that he would hold a nomination hearing in early January. He called Tillerson “a very impressive individual” with “an extraordinary working knowledge of the world.”
Concerns about Russian ties
Lawmakers from both major parties raised concerns about the oilman’s relationship with Moscow. Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, in a statement, said he had “serious concerns” about Tillerson’s nomination.
In 2013, Putin bestowed a Russian state honor, the Order of Friendship, on Tillerson, citing his work “strengthening cooperation in the energy sector.”
“Mr. Tillerson’s cozy ties to Vladimir Putin and Russia would represent an untenable conflict at the State Department,” Representative Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said in a statement.
Trump is confident that Tillerson can get past questions about his ties to Russia, the transition official said.
“His relationships with leaders all over the world are second to none,” Trump’s statement said.
Republicans and Democrats said they would ask Tillerson, who has met Putin several times, about his contacts with Russia. He won fresh praise from Moscow on Monday.
Senator John McCain, a leading foreign policy voice and the 2008 Republican candidate for president, told Reuters: “I have concerns. It’s very well-known that he has a very close relationship with Vladimir Putin.”