Friday 23 August 2019

Donald Trump closing in on Exxon Mobil chief Rex Tillerson as secretary of state

Rex Tillerson rose to prominence through Exxon's Russian energy business (AP)
Rex Tillerson rose to prominence through Exxon's Russian energy business (AP)

Donald Trump is thought to be moving closer to nominating Exxon Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state after private meetings between the two.

The president-elect has privately signalled that he plans to ask Mr Tillerson to take the powerful cabinet post, according to sources.

Some advisers worry that Mr Tillerson's ties to Russia would lead to a contentious Senate confirmation hearing and keep alive questions about Mr Trump's relationship with Moscow.

The CIA has assessed with "high confidence" that Russia sought to influence the US election on behalf of Mr Trump, who spoke throughout the campaign about improving Washington's relationship with Moscow.

Mr Tillerson rose to prominence through Exxon's Russian energy business and was awarded Russia's Order of Friendship.

He has argued against sanctions the US and European allies imposed on Russia after it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

In an interview, the president-elect praised Mr Tillerson as "much more than a businessman".

"He's a world-class player," Mr Trump said on Fox News Sunday. "To me, a great advantage is he knows many of the players and he knows them well. He does massive deals in Russia, he does massive deals, not for himself, for the company."

The president-elect's deliberations over his pick to lead the State Department - particularly his consideration of Mitt Romney - have exposed deep rivalries within Mr Trump's team.

Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway warned publicly that his supporters would feel betrayed if he were to choose a fierce rival for the post, especially given that some loyal allies - most notably former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani - also wanted the job.

Mr Giuliani officially took himself out of consideration for the cabinet on Friday, although his standing had already been diminished. In addition to Mr Romney, Mr Trump has also been considering Tennessee senator Bob Corker and John Bolton, former US ambassador to the United Nations.

Internal divisions were also complicating efforts to set up senior White House staff. Long-time aides are fearful of being left out of the mix as incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus builds the West Wing team. Mr Trump had given him wide authority in decision-making over White House jobs.

But four people involved in the transition said Mr Trump was irritated after learning of his loyalists' frustrations with Mr Priebus in recent press reports.

Mr Trump is said to be intrigued by the prospect of putting an international businessman in the State Department. He has already selected others with predominantly private sector experience to his cabinet, including billionaire investor Wilbur Ross for commerce.

Mr Tillerson, 64, is a Texas native who joined Exxon straight out of college in 1975 and never left.

Exxon also has operations in Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, and many other countries. Africa and Asia were its leading sources of oil production in 2015, ahead of the US. The company says it has a diverse portfolio of oil and gas projects around the world to mitigate risks, including political ones.

Mr Tillerson has held posts in the company's operations in Yemen and Russia. Success in the latter post required aligning the company's interests with that of the Russian government.

Early in the company's efforts to gain access to the Russian market, he cut a deal with state-owned Rosneft. The neglected post-Soviet company did not have a tremendous amount to offer, but Exxon partnered with it "to be on the same side of the table", he said, according to Private Empire, an investigative history of Exxon by reporter Steve Coll.


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