WASHINGTON (CN) – President-elect Donald Trump on Tuesday selected Exxon Mobil Corp. CEO Rex Tillerson, a career oil executive with close ties to the Russian government, as his secretary of state.
Tillerson has been with Exxon Mobile since 1975, and his role at the company has required him to develop relationships with heads of state across the world while negotiating drilling contracts.
Trump said on Twitter shortly after confirming the Tillerson pick he likes that “[Tillerson] has vast experience at dealing successfully with all types of foreign governments.”
“His tenacity, broad experience and deep understanding of geopolitics make him an excellent choice for secretary of state,” Trump said in a statement Tuesday morning. “He will promote regional security and focus on the core national security interests of the United States. Rex knows how to manage a global enterprise, which is crucial to running a successful state department, and his relationships with leaders all over the world are second to none. I can think of no one more prepared, and no one more dedicated, to serve as secretary of state in this critical time in our history.”
While Trump clearly values Tillerson’s business experience, it could make his path to confirmation in the Senate a rocky one.
Tillerson has a history of negotiating oil deals with the Russian government, including one in 2011 that put him at odds with the U.S. State Department over sanctions against Russia for its aggression towards Ukraine.
That deal allowed Exxon Mobile to team up with Russian oil company Rosneft PJSC to drill in the Arctic Ocean off of the Russian coast.
In 2013 Tillerson received the Order of Friendship from Russian President Vladimir Putin, an award given to foreign nationals who work to better relations with Russia.
Given recent revelations that the United States intelligence community believes Russia attempted to influence the 2016 election through a series of directed hacks on the likes of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, senators on both sides have expressed concern about the Tillerson pick.
The secretary of state must be approved by the Senate, meaning if three Republicans were to join a unified Democratic party in opposing any Trump nomination, that nomination would fail.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said over the weekend as the Tillerson pick leaked out that he will have to look closely at Tillerson’s relationship with Russia, calling it a “matter of concern.”
Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, through which Tillerson’s confirmation will pass, have expressed concern about the pick since Trump’s intentions became clear.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who serves on the committee, criticized Trump’s justification that Tillerson would be a good pick because of his history of cutting deals with Putin.
“Being a ‘friend of Vladimir,’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState,” Rubio said in a tweet Sunday morning.
Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the committee, told CNN he is “concerned” about Tillerson’s close ties to the Kremlin and the potential conflicts of interest they could cause.
“I am concerned about his relationship with Russia,” Cardin said on CNN over the weekend. “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. We need to make sure that the secretary of state has independence and will represent U.S. interests and are not concerned about commercial interests with Russia over what is in our national security interest.”
In a written statement, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he supports Trump’s selection of Tillerson.
“Rex Tillerson’s decades of experience have been widely recognized for forward-looking strategic planning, managing international partnerships and risk, and focused leadership around the world,” McConnell said. “As president-elect Trump’s choice for nomination as Secretary of State, he will bring these critical skills, knowledge and capabilities into an important role after eight years of the Obama administration’s uncertain leadership.
“We need a full review of our national security policy, and I know Rex will face each problem head on with American interests and security as his top priority. I look forward to supporting his nomination,” McConnell added.
But a markedly different message was delivered in a statement from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, suggesting the battle lines that will be drawn for the confirmation fight ahead.
“Mr. Trump’s nomination of Rex Tillerson for secretary of state is sending a very troubling message to the international community,” Sanders said. “Not only is Mr. Tillerson a pal of Russia’s authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin, but he is the head of one of the largest oil companies in the world. In this appointment, Mr. Trump is making it abundantly clear that the short-term profits of the fossil fuel industry are more important than climate change and the future of the planet. Very sad. Very dangerous. Mr. Tillerson must be opposed.”