President-elect Donald Trump announced Exxon Mobil Corp Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson as his choice for U.S. secretary of state on Tuesday, despite concerns from lawmakers in both political parties over the oilman’s ties to Russia.
Tillerson’s experience in diplomacy stems from making deals with foreign countries for Exxon, the world’s largest energy company, and Trump praised him as a successful international dealmaker who leads a global operation.
“He will be a forceful and clear-eyed advocate for America’s vital national interests and help reverse years of misguided foreign policies and actions that have weakened America’s security and standing in the world,” Trump said in a statement.
Tillerson has been chief executive of Exxon Mobil since 2006 and, like Trump, has never held public office. Tillerson said in a statement that he shared the president-elect’s “vision for restoring the credibility of the United States’ foreign relations and advancing our country’s national security.”
Some lawmakers raised concerns about Tillerson’s relationship with Moscow. His appointment requires Senate confirmation.
Senator John McCain, a leading Republican foreign policy voice and his party’s 2008 nominee for president, told Reuters: “I have concerns. It’s very well known that he has a very close relationship with (Russian President) Vladimir Putin.”
Trump was poised to add another figure with close ties to the oil industry to his Cabinet.
A source close to the transition said Trump had chosen former Texas Governor Rick Perry, whose state is a leading oil producer, as his nominee for energy secretary, with an announcement expected soon. Perry met Trump on Monday at Trump Tower in New York.
Trump picked Tillerson, 64, after the Texan was backed by several Republican establishment figures, including former Secretary of State James Baker, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a senior transition official said.
Rice and Gates, who have worked for Exxon as consultants, both issued statements of support on Tuesday.
Their backing is seen as crucial to helping Tillerson get past a possibly contentious Senate confirmation battle likely to focus on his relationship with Putin.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said he would hold a confirmation hearing in early January. He called Tillerson “a very impressive individual” with “an extraordinary working knowledge of the world.”
Exxon Mobil’s board will meet soon regarding its transition, CNBC reported citing a company statement.
In 2013, Putin bestowed on Tillerson a Russian state honor, the Order of Friendship, citing his work “strengthening cooperation in the energy sector.”
There also has been controversy over alleged Russian interference in the Nov. 8 presidential election, with the CIA concluding Moscow had intervened to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Tillerson’s “cozy ties to Vladimir Putin and Russia would represent an untenable conflict at the State Department,” Representative Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, said in a statement.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio said in a statement he also had serious concerns.
“The next secretary of state must be someone who views the world with moral clarity, is free of potential conflicts of interest, has a clear sense of America’s interests, and will be a forceful advocate for America’s foreign policy goals to the president, within the administration, and on the world stage,” Rubio said.
Trump is confident that Tillerson can get past questions about his ties to Russia, the transition official said.
“His relationships with leaders all over the world are second to none,” Trump’s statement said.
There also are concerns among lawmakers about former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who has been mentioned as a possible No. 2 State Department official and who has voiced hawkish views on Iraq and Iran, as well as on China and Taiwan.
Republicans and Democrats said they would ask Tillerson, who has met Putin several times, about his contacts with Russia. He won fresh support from Moscow on Tuesday, with a Kremlin foreign policy aide saying Tillerson has good relations not only with Putin but with many other Russian officials as well.
The U.S. business community welcomed Trump’s choice of Tillerson, with GE Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt calling him “a great negotiator.”
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”We are pleased that Rex will bring a business perspective to the State Department,” the National Association of Manufacturers added.
Human rights, environmental and other advocacy groups decried the choice, questioning Exxon deals with various governments and environmental impact under Tillerson.
“This sets a very alarming path for the new administration,” Global Witness said in a statement.
While busily filling out his Cabinet, Trump is seeking to answer questions about how he will separate himself from his far-flung business empire before taking office on Jan. 20.
He had planned a news conference on Thursday to lay out the details but delayed it until Tuesday due to what aides said was the crush of picking people to serve in his administration.
In a series of late-night tweets on Monday, Trump said he would be leaving his business before his Jan. 20 inauguration so he can focus full-time on the presidency and that he would leave his two sons, Donald Trump Jr and Eric Trump, to manage it.
He did not mention his daughter Ivanka, who has been a central player in his business affairs, as well as his campaign, and who is said to be considering a move to Washington to help her father.
“No new deals will be done during my term(s) in office,” Trump said, adding that he would hold a news conference “in the near future.”