WASHINGTON – President-elect Donald Trump planed on Tuesday to nominate Exxon Mobil Corp. chief Rex Tillerson for U.S. secretary of state, setting off a confirmation fight that puts the oilman’s ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin — and Trump’s own — in the spotlight.
The nomination is sure to spark a high-profile battle in the U.S. Senate, where three Republicans and several Democrats have already expressed public misgivings about making Tillerson the nation’s top diplomat, largely over concerns about his two decades of work with Putin.
Tillerson has accepted Trump’s offer, according to a person familiar with the transition. He will reach Exxon’s mandatory retirement age of 65 in March and, if confirmed, would be the first oil executive to lead the State Department.
Trump picked Tillerson after the Texan was backed by several Republican establishment figures including former Secretaries of State James Baker and Condoleeza Rice and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a transition official said.
Trump made clear in an interview on Fox News Sunday that he would not back away from defending Tillerson or his work in Russia, calling his global relationships an attribute. He called the executive “a world class player.”
“And to me, a great advantage is he knows many of the players,” Trump said. “And he knows them well. He does massive deals in Russia. He does massive deals for the company, not for himself, but the company.”
Yet those ties aren’t viewed as an asset by some of Trump’s most prominent Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill. Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida are among lawmakers who have questioned Tillerson’s dealings with Putin. Rubio sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, where he could join with Democrats on the panel to block Tillerson’s nomination from reaching the Senate floor.
“Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState,” Rubio said in a tweet on Sunday that was signed with his initials.
Confirmation hearings also may become a proxy fight over Trump’s position that Putin is an effective leader with whom he can reach agreements, a stance widely unpopular among lawmakers in both parties. Added to the mix is a looming inquiry into Russian meddling in the election, a conclusion reached by the intelligence community in October after investigating hacking of Democratic Party institutions.
Taking that investigation’s conclusions further, The Washington Post reported on Friday that the CIA has told senators that Putin’s government was actively seeking to help Trump win the election — a step beyond earlier findings that the goal was to undermine the credibility of the U.S. political process.
President Barack Obama has ordered a full review of the evidence of Russian hacking. Trump has repeatedly rejected the idea that Russia has been pinpointed as the source of the hacks of Democratic Party servers, suggesting that the accusations are politically motivated.
As Exxon’s CEO, Tillerson made at least 20 visits to the White House during Obama’s two terms, including five after sanctions were imposed on Russia following the country’s 2014 military incursion into Ukraine. A White House official at the time said Tillerson wanted to make sure Exxon’s European competitors weren’t advantaged by the sanctions.
Russian companies targeted by sanctions include Rosneft, the oil giant with which Tillerson’s Exxon Mobil signed a strategic cooperation deal in 2011. Their cooperation was stalled by the sanctions regime. He has expressed skepticism of sanctions in the past, saying at a 2014 shareholder meeting: “We don’t find them to be effective unless they are very well implemented.”
Under Tillerson, Exxon amassed drilling rights across tens of millions of acres in Russia, making its holdings in the country larger than in the U.S., according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings. When the Putin regime forced Royal Dutch Shell Plc and other foreign investors to cede control of a massive gas export project on Sakhalin Island in 2007, Exxon’s holdings in the same region remained intact and untouched by the government.
Tillerson and Putin first met on Sahkhalin Island in 1999, and he was later awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship, a high civilian honor for distinguished foreign nationals.
David Mortlock, a former director of international economic affairs on Obama’s National Security Council, said a Tillerson nomination would extend a trend of the U.S. pursuing “economic statecraft” that began under Hillary Clinton, who Trump defeated in the presidential contest, when she was secretary of state.
“It ironically continues something that really started in the Clinton State Department, which is economic statecraft, and the fact that U.S. CEOs, U.S. companies have been some of our best diplomats overseas and the U.S. brand is an important part of U.S. diplomacy and U.S. representation,” Mortlock said.
Tillerson is also certain to face questions about Exxon’s environmental record. The company long questioned the science behind global warming, though it has recently acknowledged that humans have contributed to climate change and expressed support for the Paris accord on carbon emissions Obama negotiated last year.
“The risk of climate change is clear and the risk warrants action,” Exxon Mobil says on its website.
However, the company is currently under investigation by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey for allegedly misleading investors for decades about the possible financial impact of climate change on its business. Exxon Mobil says the probe is politically motivated.
“One of the critical tests at his confirmation hearings must be his demonstration of a true commitment to America’s leadership on climate action, including fully supporting the Paris Agreement and honoring the country’s international climate commitments,” Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute, said in a statement.
Kellyanne Conway, a top Trump adviser, said Friday on Fox News that those who were considered by Trump also included Alan Mulally, the former CEO of Ford Motor Co., former CIA Director David Petraeus, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican.
Trump on Monday called former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who he interviewed earlier for the post, to tell him he wasn’t getting the job, according to one of the people familiar with the matter, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity because the announcement isn’t official. Romney acknowledged Monday night on Facebook that he’s not the pick.
“It was an honor to have been considered for Secretary of State of our great country,” Romney said in his Facebook post. “My discussions with President-elect Trump have been both enjoyable and enlightening. I have very high hopes that the new administration will lead the nation to greater strength, prosperity and peace.”
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