Sunday 25 February 2018

Trump selects Rex Tillerson to lead US State Department, despite concerns about his ties to Russia

Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters
Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters
Exxon Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson is Donald Trump's choice for US secretary of state (AP)
A smiling Vladimir Putin, right, with Rex Tillerson during a signing ceremony in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in 2011 (RIA Novosti/AP) Newsdesk Newsdesk

Donald Trump has picked Exxon Mobil boss Rex Tillerson to lead the US State Department, dismissing concerns about the businessman's close ties with Russia, sources close to the president-elect's team have said.

Mr Trump's decision caps a lengthy process that often played out in public and exposed rifts within his transition team. It also sets him up for a potential battle with Congress over confirming Mr Tillerson, who has connections with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Billionaire property mogul Mr Trump will officially announce Mr Tillerson's nomination as secretary of state on Tuesday.

The president-elect had moved towards choosing Mr Tillerson after a meeting on Saturday - their second discussion in a week. Mr Trump was said to be drawn to the idea of having an international businessman serve as the nation's top diplomat.

But the prospect of Mr Tillerson's nomination sparked immediate concern on Capitol Hill, where politicians are already grappling with intelligence assessments suggesting Russia interfered with the US presidential election to help Mr Trump.

Florida Republican senator Marco Rubio said on Twitter that "being a 'friend of Vladimir'" was not an attribute he was seeking in a secretary of state.

Read More: Donald Trump brands Russian hacking claims 'ridiculous' and snubs CIA briefings

In a weekend interview with Fox News Sunday, Mr Trump cast Mr Tillerson's deep relations with Moscow as a selling point.

As oil and gas giant Exxon Mobil's head, he maintained close ties with Russia and was awarded the Order of Friendship by Mr Putin in 2013, an honour for a foreign citizen.

"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 for the company," Mr Trump said.

If confirmed by the Senate, Mr 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 Mr Trump's recent suggestions that he could take a more aggressive approach to dealing with Beijing.

A native of Wichita Falls, Texas, Mr Tillerson came to Exxon Mobil Corporation as a production engineer from the University of Texas at Austin in 1975 and never left.

Read More: Secretary of state favourite Tillerson is 'Putin pal'

Groomed for an executive position, he 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 Russian market, Mr Tillerson 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", Mr Tillerson said, according to Private Empire, an investigative history of Exxon by reporter Steve Coll.

Mr Tillerson, who became chief executive on January 1 2006, is expected to retire in 2017. His 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 Mr Tillerson were to become secretary of state.

Mr Trump's choice to serve as secretary of state initially appeared to be a toss-up between former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee.

But Mr Giuliani's prospects fell amid revelations of his overseas business ties and Mr Romney became the source of a fierce fight within the transition team, with some advisers strongly opposed to the prospect of tapping a Republican critical of Mr Trump during the campaign.

Indeed, Mr Romney blasted Mr Trump as a "fraud" during his White House run, but was full of praise for the president-elect after they discussed the State Department post over a private dinner in Manhattan.

Late on Monday, Mr Romney said in a Facebook post that he was honoured to have been considered and his discussions with Mr Trump were "enjoyable and enlightening".

"I have very high hopes that the new administration will lead the nation to greater strength, prosperity and peace," Mr Romney wrote.

Meanwhile Mr Trump has said he is leaving his businesses before January 20 so he can "focus full time" on being president.

He said on Twitter that his sons Don and Eric, along with other executives, would manage the companies, and added: "No new deals will be done during my term(s) in office."

Mr Trump had been due to hold a news conference this week on the future of his business empire, but it was postponed until next month. Sean Spicer, a Trump transition team spokesman, said the legal team needed more time to work out the plan for the Trump Organisation.

Mr Trump promised to hold a news conference soon "to discuss the business, Cabinet picks and all other topics of interest. Busy times!".

Press Association

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