Rex Tillerson as top diplomat? Russia ties could sink Exxon CEO confirmation

Republican and Democratic senators alike have expressed reservations as President-elect Donald Trump picks the head of an oil giant as his nominee for US secretary of State.

Mike Stone/Reuters/File
Exxon Mobil Corp. chief executive officer Rex Tillerson speaks at a news conference following a 2007 shareholders meeting in Dallas, Texas. Mr. Tillerson has emerged as US President-elect Donald Trump's top pick for secretary of State.

UPDATE: Dec. 13, 8 a.m.

Exxon Mobil Corp. chief executive officer Rex Tillerson has been nominated for the top US diplomatic position under President-elect Donald Trump, but senators from both major parties have voiced reservations over the pick, considering Mr. Tillerson's close ties with Russia.

In four decades with Exxon, Tillerson has lobbied American officials on US-Russia relations, and in 2012, he received Russia's Order of Friendship honor from President Vladimir Putin, personally. Mr. Trump has lauded these facts as qualifications for US secretary of State, but fellow Republicans in the Senate have cited the same facts as causes for concern.

"Being a 'friend of Vladimir' is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState," Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted Sunday.

Republicans will occupy 10 of the 19 seats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will be tasked with vetting Tillerson. If all nine Democrats oppose the nominee, rejecting Trump's pick would take only one Republican dissenter. (The nomination could be taken to the full Senate despite a rejection by the committee, but that would be unprecedented for a cabinet position, as Bloomberg reported.)

Republicans will hold 52 seats in the full Senate, and they will need only 51 votes – a simple majority – to confirm presidential nominees.

While no Republican senators have said definitively that they would not vote for Tillerson, more than one has expressed reservations.

"It's a matter of concern to me that he has such a close personal relationship with Vladimir Putin, and obviously they've done enormous deals together. That would color his approach to Vladimir Putin and the Russian threat," Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona told CBS on Sunday.

Prior to Tuesday's announcement of Tillerson as the nominee, Senator McCain added that whomever the nominee was would receive a full and fair confirmation hearing.

Trump's team has countered that Tillerson's ties to Russia would be more of an asset than a liability.

"It's something that I think could be a huge advantage to the United States," Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman who has been selected as White House chief of staff, said Sunday on ABC's "This Week."

Trump himself defended Tillerson as a "world-class player" and "more than a business executive," whose dealings in Russia have introduced him to many of the people he would need to know if nominated and confirmed.

Among the other options reportedly considered for the post, included retired Gen. David Petraeus, the former Central Intelligence Agency director; former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney; Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee; and others.

Senator Corker, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was among the Republicans who spoke highly of Tillerson's accomplishments.

"If it is Rex Tillerson, he is a very impressive individual," Corker tweeted.

Democrats in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said they were less impressed by Tillerson's work history.

Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the committee's top Democrat, told CNN on Sunday that he's concerned by Tillerson's relationship with Russia: "We want to make sure that the Secretary of State is a person who represents America. And, once again, Russia is not our friend. They have attacked our allies. They are attacking us through the Internet."

Sen. Bob Casey (D) of Pennsylvania told the Associated Press that the developments "raise serious questions about whether the incoming administration will adequately stand up to Russia's aggression."

The news was met with mixed reactions from outside groups.

"This is a shocking choice: If Tillerson has to recuse himself from Russia policy, he can't do his job; if he doesn't recuse himself, he creates the appearance of deep conflict of interest, even corruption," Stephen Sestanovich, the former US ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union, told Bloomberg in an email.

Daniel Yergin, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power," however, said Russia represents a relatively small portion of Exxon's overall operations and that Tillerson would be able to pivot to focus on national interests.

"He'll be secretary of the United States and he'll be divorced from the company completely," Mr. Yergin told Bloomberg. "He's very orderly and disciplined in how he approaches decisions."

David L. Goldwyn, who served as the State Department's top energy diplomat under President Obama, told The New York Times that Tillerson would be "a credible and effective messenger for a US reset" because he is an outsider among foreign policy institutions.

Mr. Goldwyn added that Trump "has definitely decided to do a reverse Nixon" in siding with Russia against China.

"He thinks we probably can make common cause with Russia in Syria but also in Libya," Goldwyn said, "and he doesn't have a problem supporting strongmen."

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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