Trump chooses oil tycoon and Russia friend Rex Tillerson to head State Department

Donald Trump announced Tuesday he will nominate oil tycoon Rex Tillerson to be secretary of State, setting up a potential confrontation with fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill who are uneasy with the Exxon Mobil chief executive’s close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In a brief statement released by his transition office early Tuesday morning, Trump praised Tillerson, 64, as “among the most accomplished business leaders and international dealmakers in the world” and said he would be a “forceful and clear-eyed advocate for America’s vital national interests.”

The announcement came as Trump finds himself increasingly at odds with members of his own party over his favorable posture toward Russia. Senate Republicans have already announced they will move forward with a bipartisan investigation of Russian meddling in the presidential election, even as Trump mocked intelligence reports that Putin’s government sought to help him win the race.

In picking Tillerson, Trump is launching a battle of wills with some high-profile congressional Republicans, including the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has spent the last several days signaling discomfort with the choice.

“While Rex Tillerson is a respected businessman, I have serious concerns about his nomination,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), said in a statement after the announcement. Rubio, who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, which will conduct Tillerson’s confirmation hearings, said the next secretary “must be someone who views the world with moral clarity” and “is free of potential conflicts of interest.”

Exxon Mobil’s vast corporate interests around the globe are certain to be a flash point in confirmation hearings, as foreign policy experts warn Tillerson’s history with the company threatens to give the appearance he would be compromised. 

The nomination will probably test senators’ appetites for defying Trump’s administration and reveal what, if any, political price is to be paid by those who do so.

Anything short of full GOP support in the Senate could doom a Tillerson nomination, as nearly all Democrats are likely to oppose him based both on objections to his Russia ties and on their concerns about Exxon’s environmental record.

“Rex Tillerson is not qualified to be secretary of State and the Senate should not confirm him,” Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said in a statement that set out the Democratic arguments against the choice.

“Aside from his utter lack of diplomatic experience, Mr. Tillerson’s cozy ties to Vladimir Putin and Russia would represent an untenable conflict at the State Department. Especially in light of mounting evidence that Russia interfered in our election to aid President-elect Trump, it’s unthinkable that Mr. Tillerson should become our top diplomat.”

Engel warned that if the Senate does vote to confirm, Tillerson will face a grilling in his committee over his Russia ties.

Trump aides hope to win over wavering senators with high-profile endorsements of Tillerson from mainstream GOP foreign policy figures, including former Secretaries of State James A. Baker III and Condoleezza Rice. They will also argue that Tillerson’s ability to close business deals in some of the most politically volatile spots in the world positioned him well for the job as the nation’s top diplomat.

Rice, who runs a consulting firm for which Tillerson is a client, said in a statement that he would bring to the job a “remarkable and a broad range of experience; a deep understanding of the global economy; and a belief in America’s special role in the world.” She called him a “successful businessman and a patriot.”

Former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, who is Rice’s partner at the consulting business, echoed the sentiment in a similar statement.

Tillerson, a Texas native, has no government or diplomatic experience, but he worked for decades to forge ties between his company and Russia. The 64-year-old is one of the world’s highest-paid executives and a rare American who has had a personal relationship for years with Putin.

Tillerson was awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship by Putin in 2013, two years after Exxon Mobil signed a multibillion-dollar deal with Russia’s largest state-owned oil company, Rosneft, for joint exploration and production.

When Russian forces invaded Ukraine and seized the Crimean peninsula in 2014, Tillerson lobbied against U.S. sanctions that stood to cost Exxon millions of dollars.

The oil company, which long resisted government efforts to fight global warming, is also under state and federal investigations for charges it misled its investors about the risks posed by climate change. Tillerson’s supporters, however, note that he moderated the company’s stand on the issue.

As reports surfaced late last week that Trump was poised to select Tillerson, influential Republicans sent clear signals they wanted Trump to look elsewhere.

McCain, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation”: "It is a matter of concern to me that he has such a close personal relationship with Vladimir Putin.”

Other Republicans, meanwhile, have been making clear they are not on board with Trump’s pursuit of a cozier relationship with Putin, who they warn is an aggressor with little regard for human rights.

Trump’s choice of Tillerson brings to an end one of the more public and drama-filled Cabinet post searches in years. 

For weeks, Trump seemed to be courting his erstwhile critic Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee for president. The two met multiple times and offered high praise for each other. Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was one of Trump’s strongest supporters in the campaign, also openly sought the job.

But Trump’s interest in Romney generated  a backlash from the president-elect’s large base of anti-establishment supporters. And Giuliani fell out of favor, in part because of concerns that his overseas business interests would be a confirmation problem.

Trump then veered toward the ideological right, as John R. Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations and a neoconservative favorite, rose as a possibility. 

Tillerson’s name emerged late in the search, and his lack of government experience seemed to make him a dark horse candidate. But he impressed Trump in an interview last week, and by the weekend he had emerged as the clear front-runner for the job.

evan.halper@latimes.com

Follow me: @evanhalper

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UPDATES:

6:35 a.m.: This article was updated with reaction to Tillerson’s selection.

The article was first published at 3:20 a.m.

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