U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has formally announced that ExxonMobil chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson is his nominee to serve as secretary of state, drawing support from prominent Republicans but also criticism from U.S. lawmakers over the oil executive’s longstanding ties to Russia..
In a statement released by his transition team on December 13, Trump said that Tillerson's "tenacity, broad experience and deep understanding of geopolitics make him an excellent choice for Secretary of State."
"He will promote regional stability and focus on the core national security interests of the United States," the statement quoted Trump as saying.
Trump added on Twitter: "The thing I like best about Rex Tillerson is that he has vast experience at dealing successfully with all types of foreign governments."
In his own 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."
The pick is likely to set up a contentious confirmation process in the Senate, where both Republicans and Democrats are wary of Tillerson’s close cooperation with the Kremlin on Exxon deals in Russia and his opposition to U.S. sanctions targeting Moscow over the Ukraine conflict.
Trump has pledged he would seek to repair battered bilateral ties with Russia as president, triggering bipartisan warnings that he could give President Vladimir Putin a free hand in countries on Russia’s periphery and beyond.
Senator John McCain (Republican-Arizona), an influential foreign policy voice in Congress, said Tillerson’s ties to Putin are "a matter of concern."
"Vladimir Putin is a thug, bully, and a murderer, and anybody else who describes him as anything else is lying," McCain said earlier this month.
ExxonMobil has extensive drilling interests in Russia, and Tillerson has criticized the U.S. sanctions, which have forced the company to abandon some projects.
Putin decorated Tillerson with a state Order of Friendship medal in 2013 for what the Kremlin called a "significant contribution to strengthening cooperation in the fuel and energy sector."
Benjamin Cardin (Democrat- Maryland), a leading member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on December 13 that he is "deeply troubled by Mr. Tillerson’s vocal opposition to U.S. sanctions on Russia following its illegal invasion, occupation, and annexation of Crimea, Ukraine, and his close personal relationship with Vladimir Putin."
"Mr. Tillerson has demonstrated he knows the corporate world and can put his shareholders’ interests first, but can he be a respected Secretary of State that puts the national security interests of the American people first? It remains to be seen," Cardin said in a statement.
Tillerson’s nomination comes amid a mounting controversy over claims that Russia used computer hackers to interfere in the U.S. election, with the CIA reportedly concluding that Moscow’s aim was to help get Trump elected over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November 8 vote. Trump and his transition team have rejected the allegations as ridiculous.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest took a thinly veiled swipe at Tillerson's warm interactions with Putin, telling reporters in Washington on December 13 that his nomination is not "particularly surprising" given Trump's stated desire to pursue rapprochement with Moscow.
"Throughout his campaign, the president-elect indicated his intent, if elected president, to pursue warmer relations with Russia. So what better way to do that than to choose somebody who’s been awarded the Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin to be your secretary of state?" Earnest said.
VIDEO PROFILE: Tillerson And Russia
An unidentified member of Trump’s transition team was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying that Trump settled on Tillerson, 64, after the Texan was backed by several influential Republicans including former Secretary of State James Baker, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Trump judged in making the pick that Tillerson could adequately address questions about his relations with Russia, another unidentified official said.
Other Republicans backed the selection as well. Representative Ed Royce (Republican-California), who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Tillerson "has unique experience and comes highly recommended."
"I look forward to hearing from him on restoring U.S. leadership and countering threats to freedom and peace," Royce said in a statement.
However, Eliot Engel, a congressman from New York and the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said that Tillerson was "not qualified" for the job.
"Aside from his utter lack of diplomatic experience, Mr. Tillerson's cozy ties to Vladimir Putin and Russia would represent an untenable conflict at the State Department," Engel said in a statement. "Especially in light of mounting evidence that Russia interfered in our election to aid President-elect Trump, it’s unthinkable that Mr. Tillerson should become our top diplomat.
'Good Businesslike Relations'
Reacting to the announcement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed hope that the "pragmatism" he ascribed to Trump and Tillerson would help mend badly strained Russian-U.S. relations.
Trump and Tillerson "have never been opponents of the development of our interaction -- quite the contrary, in fact. These are pragmatic people," Lavrov told journalists in Serbia. "We are counting on this pragmatism to become a good basis to set up mutually beneficial relations -- mutually beneficial both from the point of view of Russian-American interaction and in terms of resolution of international issues."
Putin's senior foreign policy aide, Yury Ushakov, said shortly after Trump's announcement that Tillerson is "well known" to Russian officials as a result of "active business cooperation."
"Russian representatives, not only the president, have good businesslike relations" with Tillerson, Ushakov said, adding that the ExxonMobil CEO is seen by Russian officials as "a very solid figure" and "a big professional in his field."
Putin and Tillerson are reported to have first met in the 1990s when the oilman supervised an Exxon project on Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East.
Their ties were further cemented in 2011 when Exxon signed a deal with Russian energy giant Rosneft to explore and drill in the Arctic and Siberia.
The deal, which Rosneft originally said could entail more than $500 billion in total investments, was put on hold due to the sanctions.
China's Foreign Ministry said Beijing looked forward to working with the new secretary of state to, in the words of a spokesman, "push forward greater progress of the bilateral relationship on a new starting point."
Trump had interviewed several potential candidates for the top U.S. foreign policy job ahead of his inauguration on January 20..
U.S. business groups welcomed Trump's selection of Tillerson. The National Association of Manufacturers said it was "pleased that Rex will bring a business perspective to the State Department."
Environmental and human rights groups, meanwhile, denounced the nomination, citing Exxon’s environmental record under Tillerson’s guidance and its dealings with an array of governments.
"This sets a very alarming path for the new administration," the international advocacy group Global Witness said in a statement.
Like Trump, Tillerson has no political experience, but has said he holds conservative views.
Born in Wichita Falls, Texas, Tillerson has spent his entire business career at Exxon, which he joined in 1975.
Among others, Trump had previously considered former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and 2012 Republican Party presidential nominee Mitt Romney for the post of secretary of state.