December 13, 2016
Donald Trump is poised to name Rex Tillerson, chief executive of ExxonMobil, as his secretary of state, ignoring criticism that the oil and gas man is too close to Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.
Mr Trump tweeted on Monday that he would formally unveil his choice for the high-profile cabinet position on Tuesday morning. US media reported that he had decided on Mr Tillerson following a messy search that saw everyone from David Petraeus, the retired general, to Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, paraded publicly through Trump Tower ahead of interviews with the president-elect.
Mr Trump also repeated his previous statement that he would leave his business before his inauguration, an effort to reduce criticism about apparent conflicts of interest. He had planned to announce the legal details of the separation on Thursday but he has pushed the announcement back to January.
The president-elect tweeted that his sons, Eric and Don, would run the company, suggesting his daughter Ivanka might play a formal role in the White House alongside her husband Jared Kushner, who emerged as a close confidant and adviser to Mr Trump over the course of the campaign and has become one of the key people in his circle.
“Even though I am not mandated by law to do so, I will be leaving my businesses before January 20th so that I can focus full time on the Presidency,” Mr Trump tweeted. “Two of my children, Don and Eric, plus executives, will manage them. No new deals will be done during my term(s) in office.”
In appointing Mr Tillerson, a 41-year veteran of Exxon, Mr Trump is maintaining his preference for officials with no executive experience in government. Mr Tillerson will work closely with James Mattis, the retired general chosen to head the Pentagon, and Michael Flynn, the national security adviser.
While Mr Tillerson, 64, has decades of experience dealing with foreign leaders, critics have raised concerns about tapping him to become the top US diplomat because of his close ties to Russia. Mr Putin awarded the Texan the “Order of Friendship” in 2013. Mr Tillerson’s stance on Russia is expected to come under intense scrutiny when he faces his confirmation hearing before the Senate foreign relations committee next year.
The concerns come as Mr Trump faces questions over his own stance on Russia. In recent days, he has slammed the CIA over a report that Russia engaged in hacking to try to influence the US election in his favour. While Mr Trump dismissed the claims as “ridiculous”, they have been deemed serious enough to spark two congressional investigations, which have the backing of senior Republicans including Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader, and John McCain, chairman of the Senate armed services committee.
Mr McCain, a long-time hawk on Russia, has also raised questions about Mr Tillerson, saying the Exxon chief’s relationship with Mr Putin is a “matter of concern”. Marco Rubio, the Florida senator who lost the Republican nomination to Mr Trump, also criticised the Texan oilman. “Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState,” Mr Rubio tweeted on Sunday.
Concerns about the incoming Trump administration’s ties to Russia also extend to Mr Flynn. The retired intelligence officer has been criticised for accepting money to attend a dinner in Moscow where he was seated beside Mr Putin, a move critics said allowed him to be used as a propaganda tool for Russia.
Mr Tillerson may face opposition at his Senate foreign relations committee nomination hearing. With 10 Republicans and 9 Democrats, it would only take one Republican defection to block him.
The Texan will assume responsibility for a host of difficult problems, ranging from the Syria crisis and North Korea to the Iran nuclear deal and relations with Russia. He will also play a central role in US relations with China, which are set for a rocky start after Mr Trump suggested he would not abide by the “One China” policy that has guided US relations towards China and Taiwan for four decades.
The choice of Mr Tillerson ends a long process that saw many people touted for the prestigious role. Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who was a fiercely loyal Trump supporter on the campaign trail, was an early frontrunner until he fell foul of the transition team because of his public lobbying for the position.
Mr Romney emerged as an unlikely candidate given his role as one of Mr Putin’s most vocal critics over the past year. On Monday he revealed he was no longer in contention, writing on Facebook that “it was an honour to have been considered for secretary of state of our great country”. Mr Petraeus was also considered for the position, despite concerns Mr Trump was placing too many generals in his cabinet.
Mr Trump has moved faster than most of his predecessors to name a cabinet and top White House aides. But some critics have questioned his decision to appoint so many people with no executive experience, particularly when the president-elect himself lacks any experience in government. Mr Trump has tapped Wilbur Ross, a billionaire investor, for his commerce secretary and top trade official.
On Monday he announced that Gary Cohn, the president of Goldman Sachs, would head the White House national economic council, and he has named Steven Mnuchin, another Goldman alumnus, as Treasury secretary.
The strong reliance on Wall Street financiers and senior business executives has also opened the door to criticism that while Mr Trump campaigned on a pledge to “drain the swamp” of powerful people in Washington, he has stacked his cabinet and top adviser roles with wealthy individuals.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi