President-elect Donald Trump has picked as his secretary of state Rex Tillerson
the chief executive of ExxonMobil, setting up a possible confrontation
with members of his own party in the Senate, Trump’s transition team
Since Tillerson’s name
emerged as a candidate for the post, leading Republicans have expressed
reservations about his years of work in Russia and the Middle East on
behalf of the multinational petroleum company.
advisers have warned that a growing number of Republican senators may
be unwilling to vote to confirm Tillerson because of his ties to Russia.
While Senate Democrats cannot filibuster Trump’s Cabinet picks,
Republicans have only 52 votes in the Senate, leaving them in potential
jeopardy if Democrats unite in opposition to Tillerson. It will take at
least 50 votes to confirm a nominee, plus Vice President-elect Mile
Pence casting a tiebreaking vote.
Yet Trump, after a protracted
selection process that saw him also considering 2012 presidential
candidate Mitt Romney, has decided to press ahead with Tillerson. Like
others in the new Trump Cabinet
the ExxonMobil chief executive lacks any experience in government but
will try to apply his experience in the business world to the realm of
diplomacy. And he has worked extensively around the globe and built
relationships with such leaders as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump team is planning an aggressive public relations campaign to win
confirmation for Tillerson and dispel what it sees as a false narrative
about his ties to Russia, a person involved in the transition said.
a sign of the potential political battles ahead, Sen. Marco Rubio
(R-Fla.) expressed “serious concerns” about Tillerson’s nomination,
noting that America’s top diplomat must be “free of potential conflicts
of interest.” Rubio, however, left open room for compromise, saying he
looked forward to “learning more about [Tillerson’s] record and his
At the same time, support flowed in Tuesday for Tillerson
from prominent figures such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice and a former defense secretary, Robert Gates. Former vice president
Richard B. Cheney also is supportive and may advocate for his
In a statement, Trump called Tillerson an
“embodiment of the American Dream” and cited the oil executive’s
“tenacity, broad experience and deep understanding of geopolitics.”
Trump, however, made no mention of the nomination process in the
was the first person to raise Tillerson as a secretary of state
possibility with Trump during a meeting at Trump Tower, the transition
official added. Trump did not know much about Tillerson but started
chewing over the idea. He invited Tillerson for a meeting and the two
global dealmakers hit it off. They recognized similarities in each
other, and the more they talked, the more they liked each other, the
transition official said.
“[Tillerson] would bring to the
position vast knowledge, experience and success in dealing with dozens
of governments and leaders in every corner of the world,” said a
statement from Gates, which did not cite any specific countries.
Rice also did not mention Russia or other nations in her statement of
support, but appeared to answer potential critics of Tillerson by
calling him a “patriot” who would “represent and interests and values of
the United States.”
Rice, who has served on the board of
Chevron, spoke with Trump about Tillerson by phone Monday as Trump made
his final decision.
argument that the defenders of Tillerson — who during his career has
also cultivated leaders of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and
Qatar — will probably make is that he stands firm in business
negotiations in Russia and elsewhere.
“One of the things I know
about the Russian government: I’m very predictable. And they know if I
say no it means no. And talking about it more isn’t going to change
that. No is still going to be no,” Tillerson said in a talk last year at
the Texas Tech business school. “Over the years we’ve earned each
other’s respect. Then when you say yes, you know we’ll follow through.
It means something.”
whether to lift economic sanctions on Russia will be one of the first
things on Tillerson’s plate, given Trump’s desire to smooth relations
with the Kremlin. International economic sanctions, imposed after Russia
annexed Crimea and gave support to insurgents in Ukraine’s eastern
provinces, have fallen heavily on financial institutions and ExxonMobil.
ExxonMobil, which has a profitable operation on Sakhalin island
in eastern Russia, had begun a drilling program in the Arctic’s Kara
Sea, where Exxon made a find, and had agreed to explore shale oil areas
of West Siberia and deep waters of the Black Sea. If sanctions are
lifted, Tillerson told analysts this year, the Black Sea drilling would
probably be the first to be restarted.
While ExxonMobil complained privately to the Obama administration about the sanctions, the company has abided by the law.
understand the situation. We understand the situation,” Tillerson said
of the Kremlin when asked at an oil analysts’ meeting this year about
whether Exxon would resume work in Russia if sanctions were lifted.
addition, Tillerson will have to deal with climate issues because the
State Department is the lead agency in international climate
negotiations. Unlike Trump, Tillerson has said that he believes that
climate change is real and has favored a revenue-neutral carbon tax of
more than $20 a ton.
environmental groups charge that Exxon knew about the harmful effects
of fossil fuels as much as 40 years ago and failed to inform investors
and the public, possibly in violation of securities laws. The New York
and Massachusetts attorneys general and a range of nongovernmental
organizations are locked in battle over the charges.
rights experts are also unhappy about Tillerson’s nomination, noting
that ExxonMobil does business in countries ruled by autocrats or
dictators including countries in the Middle East, Equatorial Guinea and
don’t think that companies’ role is to play politics,” said Pavel
Molchanov, oil analyst at the investment firm Raymond James. “They’re
there to invest in resources. Saying that he personally has some special
feelings toward Russia just because Exxon has invested there is
probably overstating the case.”
But that might not be the way lawmakers see it.
least four Republican senators have already publicly expressed their
concerns with Tillerson’s Russia ties. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.)
called the fact that Putin awarded Tillerson the Kremlin’s Order of
Friendship in 2013 “unnerving,” while Sen. John McCain (Ariz.)
questioned Tillerson’s judgment on CNN on Monday noting, “I don’t see
how anybody could be a friend of this old time KGB agent,” referring to
Established in 1994 by the
president at the time, Boris N. Yeltsin, the Order of Friendship has
been handed out by Russian leaders to figures as diverse as pianist Van
Cliburn, former Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt, and Raymond E.
Johnson, founder of the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis.
also tweeted over the weekend that “being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not
an attribute I am hoping for from a Secretary of State,” while a
spokesman for Sen. James Lankford (Okla.) said he “has a lot of
questions about Mr. Tillerson and his ties to Russia.”
the four, only Rubio sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
which first must approve Tillerson’s nomination before it can head to
the floor. Committee chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who was in the
running to be Trump’s Secretary of State, tweeted over the weekend that
Tillerson “is a very impressive individual.”
outnumber Democrats by only one on the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, giving Democrats an opportunity to block one of Trump’s most
important Cabinet picks if they stay united in voting against
Tillerson’s nomination. Democrats would not say if they expect their
committee members to hold rank. But if they can, they only need one
Republican to vote against Tillerson’s nomination to keep him from
proceeding to the Senate floor for a full confirmation vote.
Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov acknowledged Tillerson’s
relationship with Putin and his friendly attitude toward Russia, but
played down the idea that it would influence policy.
“As to the
allegations of whether his attitude to the Russian Federation is good or
bad: being secretary of state is very different from leading a company,
even a very big one. Therefore, any, so to speak, sympathies become
secondary,” Peskov was quoted by the Interfax news agency as telling
“The only thing that remains here is readiness to
demonstrate a constructive attitude and be professional,” he said. “We
are hoping that this is what will happen.”
Peskov said that Tillerson and Putin had met on several occasions but offered only measured comments about their relationship.
he repeatedly had contacts with our representatives due to his work in
the post of one of the world’s largest oil companies; he fulfills his
duties very professionally,” Peskov said.
David Filipov in Moscow, and Paul Kane, Anne Gearan and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.