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Reports: Trump to Tap ExxonMobil Exec to Head State Department


FILE - ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson delivers remarks on the release of a report by the National Petroleum Council on oil drilling in the Arctic, March 27, 2015, in Washington.

President-elect Donald Trump tweeted Monday that he would announce his choice for secretary of state this morning. Several news U.S. organizations – most citing anonymous sources within Trump's transition team – report Trump plans to name ExxonMobil chairman and chief executive officer Rex Tillerson.

The notion that Tillerson will get the nod was further bolstered when Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, posted messages on social media Monday evening indicating he wasn't getting the job.

Romney and Tillerson were considered the frontrunners for the post, although Trump met with several other potential nominees, including former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker.

Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was also on Trump’s short list, but he withdrew his name from consideration Friday.

Russian connection

Tillerson would likely face a contentious confirmation process. As reports emerged Saturday that Trump had settled on the 64-year-old oil executive, several senators – including some Republicans – voiced concerns about Tillerson's ties to Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013 awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship to Tillerson, who has guided huge ExxonMobil deals with Russian companies for exploration and production of oil and gas and has opposed U.S. sanctions on Moscow.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, and Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil's chief executive smile during a signing ceremony in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Aug. 30, 2011
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, and Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil's chief executive smile during a signing ceremony in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Aug. 30, 2011

The Kremlin on Monday praised Tillerson, calling him “highly professional.”

Tillerson’s relationship with Putin “is a matter of concern,” Senator John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Sunday.

Other Republican senators, including Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, also indicated they were troubled by Tillerson's dealings with Russia.

Democratic Senator Robert Menendez said that with Tillerson as the top U.S. diplomat, "the Trump administration would be guaranteeing Russia has a willing accomplice in the President's Cabinet guiding our nation's foreign policy."

Speaking earlier this year at the University of Texas, Tillerson acknowledged, “I have a very close relationship with him,” having known Putin for more than 15 years.

Tillerson’s emergence as the frontrunner for secretary of state coincided with reports the CIA concluded that Russia interfered in the U.S. election in favor of Trump. Intelligence committees in both houses of Congress launched investigations Monday into those accusations.

Business savvy vs. diplomatic experience

While some critics questioned Tillerson's qualifications to serve as a diplomat, Trump said in an interview Sunday that Tillerson's global business dealings made him "a world-class player."

“He knows many of the players, and he knows them well,” Trump said.

Professor Henry Hale, a Eurasia specialist at George Washington University told VOA that “doing business abroad is not the same thing as conducting the nation’s business abroad.” But he also noted that “all secretaries of state learn on the job to some degree."

Hale said Tillerson’s nomination would be “reason for concern,” and “it’s anybody’s guess how well this will work.”

Selecting Tillerson would be much in line with Trump’s preference for military and business leaders in his Cabinet.

“Tillerson’s comfort with and understanding of organizational formality might equip him uniquely to deal with the Foggy Bottom establishment, which has cultural rigidities of its own,” said Bob Tippee, editor of Oil & Gas Journal. “I find this really interesting and potentially transformative.”

Tillerson’s career has given him numerous skills necessary for a competent top diplomat, “absorbing complex political analysis, evaluating foreign leaders, attending ceremonial events, and negotiating with friends and adversaries,” according to Steve Coll, author of a book about ExxonMobil called "Private Empire."

The company, which eschews interference in the 50 countries in which it operates, sees itself “as an independent, transnational corporate sovereign in the world, a power independent of the American government, one devoted firmly to shareholder interests and possessed of its own foreign policy,” writes Coll in the latest online edition of the New Yorker magazine.

The energy giant’s foreign policy sometimes has more impact in countries than does the State Department, says Coll, describing ExxonMobil executives as regarding U.S. diplomats with disdain, if not contempt, for a perceived bias against oil and their inability to understand sensitive and complex oil deal negotiations.