NEW YORK — President-elect Donald Trump has tapped ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to lead the State Department, dismissing concerns about the businessman's close ties to Russia and bringing a long public audition process to a conclusion.
Two people close to Trump's transition team said Monday night that Trump had selected Tillerson. They insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the pick ahead of that announcement.
Trump was set to announce his nomination Tuesday morning. The selection could set him up for a potential fight with Congress over confirming Tillerson, who has connections with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Leading Republicans have already expressed anxieties about Tillerson, as they contend with intelligence assessments saying Russia interfered with the U.S. presidential election to help Trump.
But two meetings with the oil executive impressed Trump, who called Tillerson a “world class player” in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”
In the interview, Trump pointed to Tillerson's deep relations with Moscow as a selling point. As ExxonMobil's head, he maintained close ties with Russia and was awarded by President Vladimir Putin with the Order of Friendship in 2013, an honor for a foreign citizen.
For weeks, Trump has teased out the decision process publicly, often exposing rifts in his organization. He also considered former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a one-time vocal Trump critic, and Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who leads the Foreign Relations Committee. Romney wrote on Facebook Monday that it “was an honor to have been considered” for the job.
The unconventional vetting procedures are in keeping with Trump's presidential style thus far, unconcerned with tradition or business as usual. In recent weeks, he's attacked CIA intelligence, spoken to the leader of Taiwan and has continued his late-night Twitter tirades.
Making yet another nontraditional choice, Trump heads out Tuesday for another week of travel, starting with a rally in Wisconsin.
Trump postponed a Thursday announcement about how he will handle his massive business empire, though it appears likely he will not follow other presidents and make a clean break from his personal holdings.
Trump was set to visit supporters as questions swirled about a CIA assessment that Russia interfered in the November election on his behalf. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Monday that Congress will investigate the agency's conclusion, which the incoming commander in chief has called “ridiculous.”
The CIA recently concluded with “high confidence” that Russia sought to influence the U.S. election on behalf of Trump, raising red flags among lawmakers concerned about the sanctity of the U.S. voting system and potentially straining relations at the start of Trump's administration.
On Twitter Monday, Trump pushed back, saying: “Can you imagine if the election results were the opposite and WE tried to play the Russia/CIA card. It would be called conspiracy theory!”
Trump has expressed admiration for Putin. But McConnell said flatly, “The Russians are not our friends.” And House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said in statement that a House Intelligence Committee probe of cyberthreats by other countries and terrorist groups “will continue and has my support.”
For his part, Putin said he was ready to meet with Trump “at any moment.”
In the transcript of his interview with journalists which was released Tuesday in Moscow, Putin said “it's widely known that the elected president of the United States has publicly called for the normalization of the Russian-American relationship. We cannot but support this.” Putin added that he thought a meeting with Trump would be more likely after Trump's January inauguration.
“We understand it will not be a simple task considering the extent of degradation of the Russian-American relationship,” he said. “But we are prepared to do our bit.”
The White House embraced the congressional inquiry involving Russia, saying that it “is certainly warranted when you consider the stakes and the consequences.”
If confirmed by the Senate, Tillerson's test will be whether his corporate deal-making skills translate into the delicate world of international diplomacy. He would face immediate challenges in Syria, where a civil war rages on, and in China, given Trump's recent suggestions that he could take a more aggressive approach to dealing with Beijing.
A native of Wichita Falls, Texas, Tillerson came to ExxonMobil Corp. as a production engineer straight out of the University of Texas at Austin in 1975 and never left. Groomed for an executive position, Tillerson came up in the rough-and-tumble world of oil production, holding posts in the company's central United States, Yemen and Russian operations.
Early in the company's efforts to gain access to the Russian market, Tillerson cut a deal with state-owned Rosneft. The neglected post-Soviet company didn't have a tremendous amount to offer, but Exxon partnered with it “to be on the same side of the table,” Tillerson said, according to “Private Empire,” an investigative history of Exxon by Steve Coll.
Tillerson, who became CEO on Jan. 1, 2006, is expected to retire in 2017. Tillerson's heir apparent, Darren Woods, was put in place a year ago, so there would be virtually no additional disruption to Exxon's succession plans if Tillerson were to become secretary of state.