NEW YORK — President-elect Donald Trump announced Dec. 12 he has settled on ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State, saying that he’s “among the most accomplished business leaders and international deal makers in the world.”
“Rex Tillerson’s career is the embodiment of the American dream. Through hard work, dedication and smart deal making, Rex rose through the ranks to become CEO of ExxonMobil, one of the world’s largest and most respected companies,” the billionaire real estate mogul said in a predawn news release from Trump Tower in New York.
“Rex knows how to manage a global enterprise, which is crucial to running a successful State Department,” Trump said of his latest — and much-discussed — Cabinet pick.
In an accompanying statement, Tillerson said he was “honored” by his selection and shares Trump’s “vision for restoring the credibility of the United States’ foreign relations and advancing our country’s national security.”
Trump also said that as the nation’s top diplomat, Tillerson would be a “a world-class leader” working on behalf of the American people.
Tillerson, however, has close ties to Russia, and his selection sets up a potential Senate confirmation fight.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman said that Beijing was looking forward to working with the new secretary of state.
“No matter who will become U.S. Secretary of State, China is looking forward to working together with him to push forward greater progress of the bilateral relationship on a new starting point,” the spokesman, Geng Shuang, said at a regular briefing.
Trump brushed aside concerns about Tillerson’s close ties to Moscow in bringing the long secretary of state audition process to an end.
Tillerson has connections with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And on Capitol Hill, leading Republicans have already expressed anxieties about Tillerson, as they contend with intelligence assessments saying Russia interfered with the U.S. Presidential election to help Trump.
But two meetings with the oil executive impressed Trump, who called Tillerson a “world class player” in an interview on Fox News Sunday.
In the interview, Trump pointed to Tillerson’s deep relations with Moscow as a selling point. As ExxonMobil’s head, he maintained close ties with Russia and was awarded by President Vladimir Putin with the Order of Friendship in 2013, an honor for a foreign citizen.
For weeks, Trump has teased out the decision process publicly, often exposing rifts in his organization.
He also considered former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a one-time vocal Trump critic, and Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who leads the Foreign Relations Committee. Romney wrote on Facebook that it “was an honor to have been considered” for the job.
The unconventional vetting procedures are in keeping with Trump’s presidential style thus far, unconcerned with tradition or business as usual.
In recent weeks, he’s attacked CIA intelligence, spoken to the leader of Taiwan and has continued his late-night Twitter tirades.
Making yet another nontraditional choice, Trump heads out Dec. 13 for another week of travel, starting with a rally in Wisconsin.
Trump postponed a Dec. 15 announcement about how he will handle his massive business empire, though it appears likely he will not follow other Presidents and make a clean break from his personal holdings.
Trump was set to visit supporters as questions swirled about a CIA assessment that Russia interfered in the November election on his behalf. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Dec. 12 that Congress will investigate the agency’s conclusion, which the incoming commander in chief has called “ridiculous.”
The CIA recently concluded with “high confidence” that Russia sought to influence the U.S. election on behalf of Trump, raising red flags among lawmakers concerned about the sanctity of the U.S. voting system and potentially straining relations at the start of Trump’s administration.
On Twitter, Trump pushed back, saying: “Can you imagine if the election results were the opposite and WE tried to play the Russia/CIA card. It would be called conspiracy theory!”
Trump has expressed admiration for Putin. But McConnell said flatly, “The Russians are not our friends.”
And House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said in statement that a House Intelligence Committee probe of cyberthreats by other countries and terrorist groups “will continue and has my support.”
For his part, Putin said he was ready to meet with Trump “at any moment.”
In the transcript of his interview with journalists which was released Dec. 13 in Moscow, Putin said “it’s widely known that the elected president of the United States has publicly called for the normalization of the Russian-American relationship. We cannot but support this.” Putin added that he thought a meeting with Trump would be more likely after Trump’s January inauguration.
“We understand it will not be a simple task considering the extent of degradation of the Russian-American relationship,” he said. “But we are prepared to do our bit.”
The White House embraced the congressional inquiry involving Russia, saying that it “is certainly warranted when you consider the stakes and the consequences.”
If confirmed by the Senate, 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 Trump’s recent suggestions that he could take a more aggressive approach to dealing with Beijing.
A native of Wichita Falls, Texas, Tillerson came to ExxonMobil Corp. as a production engineer straight out of the University of Texas at Austin in 1975 and never left.
Groomed for an executive position, Tillerson 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 the Russian market, Tillerson cut a deal with state-owned Rosneft.
The neglected post-Soviet company didn’t have a tremendous amount to offer, but Exxon partnered with it “to be on the same side of the table,” Tillerson said, according to “Private Empire,” an investigative history of Exxon by Steve Coll.
Tillerson, who became CEO on Jan. 1, 2006, is expected to retire in 2017. Tillerson’s 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 Tillerson were to become secretary of state.
JULIE PACE and CATHERINE LUCEY. AP writers Laurie Kellman in Washington and Alex Sanz in Atlanta contributed