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Trump's Pick of Oil CEO for Top Diplomat Draws Praise, Concern


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

There is mixed reaction to President-elect Donald Trump's pick for secretary of state, with some current and former officials praising ExxonMobil Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson, while others are expressing concern over his ties to Russia.

Tillerson, friendly with Russia’s president, has spent his 41-year career at the same oil company.

Trump said Tuesday Tillerson's knowledge of running a global company is crucial to successfully leading the State Department.

"His tenacity, broad experience and deep understanding of geopolitics make him an excellent choice for secretary of state," Trump said in a statement released by his transition team. "He will promote regional stability and focus on the core national security interests of the United States."

It was thought Trump would be compelled to select someone else, such as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, because the requisite Republican support in the Senate for Tillerson appears shaky.

Concern

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

Another Republican senator, Marco Rubio said Tuesday that "While Rex Tillerson is a respected businessman, I have serious concerns about his nomination."

Senator Bob Corker called Tillerson "a very impressive individual" and said the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing on his nomination in early January. His statement indicated the hearing would be held before Trump's inauguration on January 20.

Ties with Russia

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.

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.

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

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, Tuesday, 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, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2011

Other reactions

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry congratulated Tillerson on his nomination and said the State Department will continue to provide full support for a smooth transition. Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice called Tillerson an "excellent choice."

Amnesty International said the nomination was "deeply concerning."

"We know that Tillerson has been successful in safeguarding the interests of a massive oil company – will he be as invested in safeguarding human rights abroad?" Eric Ferrero, director of communications for Amnesty International USA said in a statement. "The U.S. must have a Secretary of State that will hold all countries accountable for human rights violations – even countries that have profited from his business."

Richard Samuels, professor of political science and director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told VOA that Tillerson's role as Exxon's CEO has him well-prepared to take on the role of the top U.S. diplomat.

"Any oil major CEO is responsible for a full palette of critical tasks, from strategic planning to investing in developing fields upstream, transport, refining, and retail sales -- all on a global scale. This also per force involves a heavy dose of diplomatic functions," he said.

But Thomas Wright, a fellow and director of the Project on International Order and Strategy, told VOA: "I worry that Rex Tillerson will be a pragmatist who helps Donald Trump cut a deal with America's adversaries at the expense of its allies. American foreign policy is not about cutting deals. He needs to show he understands and supports America's exceptional role as the leader of a liberal international order."

Confirmation could be tough

Amid reports the CIA concluded that Russia interfered in the U.S. election in favor of Trump, a secretary of state with deep Russian ties would face significant scrutiny in confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill.

There is a bipartisan push for a thorough investigation of the alleged Russian involvement in the U.S. electoral process.

Based on the current composition of the Senate, if all Democrats vote in unison against any nominee and more than two Republicans join them, the next president's choice would be rejected.

Watch: Trump Selects ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State

Democrat Ed Markey, a clean energy advocate, predicts the Trump administration will face “a major battle if Tillerson is nominated,” asserting “we cannot allow oil to replace diplomacy as the currency of the U.S. Department of State.”

On climate change matters, “Tillerson or any other nominee will do Trump’s bidding,” said Bob Tippee, editor of Oil & Gas Journal. “The selection of Tillerson would further inflame climate activists, which might be the point.”

Tillerson, who is due to leave his company next year when he reaches its mandatory retirement age of 65, met with Trump earlier this month and again on Saturday.

VOA's Michael Bowman contributed to this report from Capitol Hill.

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