ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson has emerged as the strong favourite to be Donald Trump’s secretary of state, US media reported on Saturday, potentially placing a businessman with global dealmaking experience at the heart of US foreign policy.
After a 41-year career at the oil giant, Mr Tillerson has no direct diplomatic background but he has close ties with Russian president Vladimir Putin who awarded him the Order of Friendship in 2013.
If confirmed, Mr Tillerson will have direct responsibility for the Trump administration’s approach to the Iran nuclear deal, the peace talks in Syria and US sanctions on Russia, which he has criticised for hampering Exxon’s ability to operate in the country.
The nomination of Mr Tillerson could face some resistance in Congress, where leading Republicans have already raised doubts about his links with Russia. Coming amid reports that Russian hackers deliberately tried to favour Mr Trump in the November election, the choice of the Exxon chief executive for the state department will magnify concerns among the party’s foreign policy establishment about the new administration’s Russia policy.
The Trump transition team said that no final decision had been taken on the secretary of state position. In an interview to be broadcast on Fox News on Sunday, Mr Trump described Mr Tillerson as “a world-class player”.
“To me, a great advantage is he knows many of the players and he knows them well,” he said. “He does massive deals in Russia, he does massive deals, not for himself, for the company.”
If Mr Tillerson is nominated, it will be the culmination of a two-week long selection process that has at times resembled an episode of “Celebrity Apprentice”, with the other candidates including former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York and Republican senator from Tennessee Bob Corker.
Mr Tillerson, who was due to retire next year when he will reach 65, has held the tiller at Exxon since 2006. The company has operations in more than 50 countries which have included Iraq and Venezuela.
But it is the company’s investments in Russia, which include a series of joint ventures with state-controlled Rosneft, that are likely to attract the most attention.
After the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia following the annexation of Crimea, Mr Tillerson told the company’s annual meeting in 2014: “We always encourage the people who are making those decisions to consider the very broad collateral damage of who are they really harming with sanctions.”
John McCain, Republican senator from Arizona, said that Mr Tillerson’s relationship with Mr Putin was a “matter of concern”. “You want to give the president of the United States the benefit of the doubt because the people have spoken,” he told Fox News. “But Vladimir Putin is a thug, a bully and a murderer, and anybody else who describes him as anything else is lying.”
Although the Republicans enjoy a big enough advantage in the Senate to ensure confirmation, the majority in the foreign relations committee is expected to be only 10 to 9, which means it would take just one defection to threaten the nomination.
Robert Menendez, one of the senior Democrats on the committee, said the nomination of Mr Tillerson would be “alarming and absurd”.
“With Rex Tillerson as our secretary of state, the Trump administration would be guaranteeing Russia has a willing accomplice in the president’s cabinet guiding our nation’s foreign policy,” he said.
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