NEW YORK (AP) — President-elect Donald Trump announced Tuesday he has picked Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state, calling the oil executive with close to ties to Russia one of the most accomplished “international dealmakers in the world.”
Tillerson’s business relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin are certain to draw scrutiny and could fuel a Senate confirmation fight. Leading Republicans have already expressed anxieties as they contend with intelligence assessments saying Russia interfered with the U.S. presidential election to help Trump.
Separately, the president-elect has selected former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to lead the Energy Department, according to people with knowledge of the decision. Perry, who ran two unsuccessful presidential campaigns, is on the board of Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, the company that is trying to build a 1,200-mile pipeline that would carry crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois and has sparked protests.
The people with knowledge of Perry’s pending nomination insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the decision ahead of an official announcement.
As for Tillerson, Trump says he sees the business leader’s ties with Moscow as a selling point, along with his “vast experience at dealing successfully with all types of foreign governments.”
“Rex Tillerson’s career is the embodiment of the American dream. Through hard work, dedication and smart dealmaking, Rex rose through the ranks to become CEO of Exxon Mobil, one of the world’s largest and most respected companies,” the billionaire real estate mogul said in a pre-dawn news release from Trump Tower in New York.
In an accompanying statement, Tillerson said he was honored by his selection and shares Trump’s “vision for restoring the credibility of the United States’ foreign relations and advancing our country’s national security.”
Trump’s team has voiced confidence about its ability to get the president-elect’s nominees confirmed. But Tillerson appears likely to pose the toughest challenge.
In a bid to fend off Republican opposition, Trump’s team is lining up support for Tillerson from high-profile national security experts. Condoleezza Rice, who served as secretary of state under President George W. Bush, called Tillerson a “successful business man and a patriot” who will “represent the interests and the values of the United States with resolve and commitment.”
Exxon is a client of the consulting firm run by Rice and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who also endorsed Tillerson’s nomination Tuesday.
Still, some Republicans are voicing doubts, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who said he had “serious concerns” about the nomination. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said he expected the U.S.-Russia relationship to be “front and center” in Tillerson’s confirmation hearings.
Reince Priebus, Trump’s incoming chief of staff, said Tuesday that Tillerson was chosen because he is “a diplomat that happens to be able to drill oil.” Priebus said on MSNBC, “The good Lord didn’t put oil in all freedom-loving democracies across the world and yet Rex Tillerson was able to make this work. Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson, they hit it off and they have a similar vision of how to get things done.”
For weeks, Trump has teased out the secretary of state decision process publicly, often exposing rifts in his organization. Prospects included Mitt Romney, a one-time vocal Trump critic who wrote on Facebook Monday that it “was an honor to have been considered” for the job.
Trump’s unconventional Cabinet vetting procedures are in keeping with his presidential style thus far, unconcerned with traditions. In recent weeks, he’s attacked CIA intelligence, spoken to the leader of Taiwan — irritating China — and continued his late-night Twitter tirades.
Beijing is looking forward to working with the new secretary of state “to push forward greater progress of the bilateral relationship on a new starting point,” China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, said Tuesday.
In Washington, a congressional investigation is in the works over a CIA assessment that Russia interfered in the November election on Trump’s behalf, a conclusion he has called “ridiculous.”
The issue is raising red flags among lawmakers concerned about protecting the U.S. voting system.
On Twitter Monday, Trump pushed back, saying: “Can you imagine if the election results were the opposite and WE tried to play the Russia/CIA card. It would be called conspiracy theory!”
Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was ready to meet with Trump “at any moment.”
In the transcript of his interview with journalists which was released Tuesday in Moscow, Putin said “it’s widely known that the elected president of the United States has publicly called for the normalization of the Russian-American relationship. We cannot but support this.” Putin added that he thought a meeting with Trump would be more likely after Trump’s January inauguration.
If confirmed, Tillerson would face immediate challenges in Syria, where a civil war rages, and in China, given Trump’s recent suggestions that he could take a more aggressive approach to dealing with Beijing.
A native of Wichita Falls, Texas, Tillerson came to Exxon Mobil Corp. as a production engineer straight out of the University of Texas at Austin in 1975 and never left. Groomed for an executive position, he has held posts in the company’s central United States, Yemen and Russian operations.
Early in the company’s efforts to gain access to the Russian market, Tillerson cut a deal with state-owned Rosneft. The neglected post-Soviet company didn’t have a tremendous amount to offer, but Exxon partnered with it “to be on the same side of the table,” Tillerson said, according to “Private Empire,” an investigative history of Exxon by Steve Coll.