President-elect Trump was expected to name ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his nominee to lead the State Department Tuesdsay morning, making a bet that the oil titan’s experience negotiating international energy deals would make him a capable top diplomat.
Several reports late Monday said Tillerson had been named, and former Gov. Mitt Romney said Monday he was no longer in the running.
If he is the nominee, Tillerson’s business background would give him a lower-profile among voters than the most recent secretaries of state with political backgrounds, although he is still well-known in political circles. A longtime Republican donor, his status as leader of one of the largest companies in the world gave him plenty of experience with foreign government officials.
“My impression is he is a first-rate corporate diplomat,” former U.S. Ambassador to Qatar Chase Untermeyer, who served under George W. Bush, told the New York Times. “In my day in Qatar, he would come and go for meetings with the most senior leadership of the country.”
Subscribe today to get intelligence and analysis on defense and national security issues in your Inbox each weekday morning from veteran journalists Jamie McIntyre and Jacqueline Klimas.
Sorry, there was a problem processing your email signup. Please try again later.
Thank you for signing up for the Daily on Defense newsletter. You should receive your first issue soon!
But that experience also comes with an international record that could complicate his nomination.
In 2011, Tillerson struck an agreement partnered with Rosneft, a state-run Russian energy company, in an oil exploration deal expected to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Russian president Vladimir Putin awarded him the Order of Friendship in 2013. That deal was put on hold when the United States levied sanctions on the Russian energy industry in response to Putin’s decision to annex Crimea and send Russian special forces into Ukraine.
Those sanctions were imposed over Tillerson’s objections. “We do not support sanctions, generally, because we don’t find them to be effective unless they are very well implemented comprehensively and that’s a very hard thing to do,” Tillerson told his shareholders in May of 2014, according to Dallas Business Journal.
His nomination comes as Senate Republicans are at loggerheads over Russia, following reports that the CIA believes Russian cyberattackers tried to help Trump win the White House. Trump responded by attacking the credibility of the CIA, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would allow various Senate committees to conduct an investigation into Russia’s actions.
With 48 members, a unified Democratic caucus would need just three Senate Republicans to break ranks in order to block Tillerson’s nomination. Such a vote would fly in the face of traditional deference to the president’s cabinet picks, but some Republicans have signaled that they are concerned about Tillerson’s record of working with Russia.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted that “being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for” following early reports of Tillerson’s candidacy. Because Rubio is a member of the committee that will hold Tillerson’s confirmation hearings — a panel in which Republicans only have a one-seat majority — the former 2016 presidential candidate could have an outsized voice on the nomination.
“I am concerned, as well, but I also believe the president deserves his nominees to get a fair hearing, and I will make no judgement until the hearing takes place and the questions are answered and we go through the process,” Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said Monday on CNN. “But, anybody who is a friend of Vladimir Putin must disregard the fact that Vladimir Putin is a murderer, a thug, a KGB agent whose airplanes as we speak have been targeting, with precision weapons, hospitals in [Syria], who have committed atrocities throughout the region, and has destabilized Ukraine . . . I don’t see how anybody could be a friend of this old-time KGB agent.”
On the other hand, Tillerson’s experience working in Russia would make him a knowledgeable critic of Putin’s regime. “There is no respect for the rule of law in Russia today,” he said at an event in St. Petersburg in 2008, according to the New York Times.
Putin’s team has already vouched for Tillerson.
“Being State Secretary and being an executive in a company, even a big one, are two different things,” Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday, according to RT. “Whatever sympathies he may have would certainly be sidelined.”
Trump was expected to pick Tillerson after a lengthy, and unusually public, search for the secretary of state. He mulled a core list of candidates ranging from loyalists such as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee and a fierce critic of Trump’s during the presidential election. Retired General David Petraeus was also a candidate, despite the scandal that derailed his career in government, but Trump expanded the list and settled on a fellow businessman.
Trump raised hopes among his Republican critics by meeting twice with Romney, despite the former Massachusetts governor’s speech denouncing Trump as “a fraud” during the campaign, but his own team of advisors and allies launched a strong public campaign against the pick.
“I’m all for party unity, but I’m not sure we have to pay for that with the secretary of state position,” Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway said on CNN last month, adding that the president-elect’s supporters “feel betrayed to think that Gov. Romney would get the most prominent Cabinet post after he went so far out of his way to hurt Donald Trump.”
Romney tried to reverse the damage by praising Trump’s ability to succeed where he had failed and “connect[ing] with the American people in a very powerful way,” but he was passed over.
“It was an honor to have been considered for Secretary of State of our great country,” Romney wrote in a Monday evening Facebook post. “My discussions with President-elect Trump have been both enjoyable and enlightening. I have very high hopes that the new administration will lead the nation to greater strength, prosperity and peace.”