ExxonMobil Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson will be nominated as President-elect Donald Trump’s secretary of state, setting up a potential confirmation battle with U.S. lawmakers who have questioned his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump praised Tillerson’s global business experience in a statement Tuesday from his transition team that announced the selection.
“Rex knows how to manage a global enterprise, which is crucial to running a successful State Department, and his relationships with leaders all over the world are second to none,” Trump said.
Tillerson said that he will focus on restoring America’s credibility on the international stage.
“We must focus on strengthening our alliances, pursuing shared national interests and enhancing the strength, security and sovereignty of the United States,” Tillerson said in the statement.
The oil executive beat out several high profile candidates for the job, including Trump loyalist and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who took his name out of the running, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who had been a Trump critic during the campaign. Romney announced Monday that he was no longer in the running to be America’s chief diplomat.
Tillerson, who hits Exxon’s mandatory retirement age of 65 in March, has accepted Trump’s offer. He would be the first oil executive and only the second Texan to lead the State Department. If Trump’s choice is confirmed by the Senate, it would hand the job of the nation’s top diplomat to a man whose ties to Putin go back almost two decades at a time when possible Russian interference in the U.S. election is under scrutiny.
The prospect of a Tillerson nomination has already drawn some objections from lawmakers in both parties, who expressed concern about his extensive dealings with Putin. That suggests that the Exxon executive could face a messy Senate confirmation fight. Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida were among those who said they had questions about Tillerson’s dealings with Putin.
Confirmation hearings may also 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. 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 an earlier finding 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 rejected the idea that Russia has been pinpointed as the source of the hacks of Democratic Party servers.
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.
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 Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican.
“It was an honor to have been considered for Secretary of State of our great country,” Romney said in a Facebook post Monday acknowledging he would not be named to the job. “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.”
Contributors: Joe Sobczyk, Joe Carroll and Arit John.