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Trump Nominates Exxon Chief Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State

  • Steve Herman
  • VOA News

FILE - ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks at an energy conference in Houston, Texas April 21, 2015.

President-elect Donald Trump announced his nomination for Secretary of State Tuesday, picking ExxonMobil chairman and chief executive officer Rex Tillerson to be the nation's top diplomat.

Tillerson, friendly with Russia’s president, has spent his 41-year career at the same oil company.

Trump said Tillerson's knowledge of running a global company is crucial to successfully leading the State Department.

"His tenacity, broad experience and deep understanding of geopolitics make him an excellent choice for secretary of state," Trump said in a statement released by his transition team. "He will promote regional stability and focus on the core national security interests of the United States."

It was thought Trump would be compelled to select someone else, such as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, because the requisite Republican support in the Senate for Tillerson appears shaky.

Concern

Tillerson’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin “is a matter of concern,” Senator John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Sunday.

Another Republican senator, Marco Rubio said Tuesday that "While Rex Tillerson is a respected businessman, I have serious concerns about his nomination."

Senator Bob Corker called Tillerson "a very impressive individual" and said the Senate Foreign Relations Committe will hold a hearing on his nomination in early January. His statement indicated the hearing would be held before Trump's inauguration on January 20.

Ties with Russia

Speaking earlier this year at the University of Texas, Tillerson acknowledged, “I have a very close relationship with him,” having known Putin for more than 15 years.

Putin in 2013 awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship to Tillerson, who has guided huge ExxonMobil deals with Russian companies for exploration and production of oil and gas and has opposed U.S. sanctions on Moscow.

The Kremlin has praised Tillerson, calling him “highly professional.”

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, and Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil's chief executive smile during a signing ceremony in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2011
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, and Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil's chief executive smile during a signing ceremony in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2011

Other reaction

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry congratulated Tillerson on his nomination and said the State Department will continue to provide full support for a smooth transition. Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice called Tillerson an "excellent choice."

Amnesty International said the nomination was "deeply concerning."

"We know that Tillerson has been successful in safeguarding the interests of a massive oil company – will he be as invested in safeguarding human rights abroad?," Eric Ferrero, director of communications for Amnesty International USA said in a statement. "The U.S. must have a Secretary of State that will hold all countries accountable for human rights violations – even countries that have profited from his business."

Confirmation could be tough

Amid reports the CIA concluded that Russia interfered in the U.S. election in favor of Trump, a secretary of state with deep Russian ties would face significant scrutiny in confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill.

There is a bipartisan push for a thorough investigation of the alleged Russian involvement in the U.S. electoral process.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Marco Rubio, who like McCain is a Republican, also expressed doubt about Tillerson, tweeting “Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState.”

Based on the current composition of the Senate, if all Democrats vote in unison against any nominee and more than two Republicans join them, the next president's choice would be rejected.

Democrat Ed Markey, a clean energy advocate, predicts the Trump administration will face “a major battle if Tillerson is nominated,” asserting “we cannot allow oil to replace diplomacy as the currency of the U.S. Department of State.”

Climate change

On climate change matters, “Tillerson or any other nominee will do Trump’s bidding,” said Bob Tippee, editor of Oil & Gas Journal. “The selection of Tillerson would further inflame climate activists, which might be the point.”

Tillerson, who is due to leave his company next year when he reaches its mandatory retirement age of 65, met with Trump earlier this month and again on Saturday.

Selecting Tillerson is much in line with Trump’s preference for military and business leaders in his Cabinet.

The president-elect seeks to use Russia, “a secondary consideration for him” behind a primarily domestic agenda, in a very pragmatic way and “Tillerson would be good to get cooperation (with Moscow) on certain issues while scaling back America’s international commitments, says Professor Henry Hale, a Eurasia specialist at George Washington University.

Despite Tillerson’s extensive international trade experience, “doing business abroad is not the same thing as conducting the nation’s business abroad,” Hale told VOA. But “all secretaries of state learn on the job to some degree.”

“Tillerson’s comfort with and understanding of organizational formality might equip him uniquely to deal with the Foggy Bottom establishment, which has cultural rigidities of its own,” editor Tippee told VOA. “I find this really interesting and potentially transformative.”

Tillerson’s career has given him numerous skills necessary for a competent top diplomat, “absorbing complex political analysis, evaluating foreign leaders, attending ceremonial events, and negotiating with friends and adversaries,” according to Steve Coll, author of a book about ExxonMobil called "Private Empire."

Exxon

The company, which eschews interference in the 50 countries in which it operates, sees itself “as an independent, transnational corporate sovereign in the world, a power independent of the American government, one devoted firmly to shareholder interests and possessed of its own foreign policy,” writes Coll in the latest online edition of the New Yorker magazine.

The energy giant’s foreign policy sometimes has more impact in countries than does the State Department, says Coll, describing ExxonMobil executives as regarding U.S. diplomats with disdain, if not contempt, for a perceived bias against oil and their inability to understand sensitive and complex oil deal negotiations.

Hale, the Eurasia scholar, who just returned from a visit to Russia, said Tillerson’s nomination would be “reason for concern,” and “it’s anybody’s guess how well this will work.”

Supported Jeb Bush

The Exxon chief has contributed to many Republican political campaigns in the past, but FEC records show he has not financially supported Donald Trump's presidential candidacy, contributing instead to the ultimately unsuccessful campaign by Jeb Bush, a brother of former president George W. Bush.

Tillerson's wife did contribute to Trump's campaign.

Tillerson has voiced positions on some domestic issues in the past that diverge from stands taken by Trump, but he has avoided speaking out on non-business topics.

VOA Senate correspondent Michael Bowman contributed to this report

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