Trump Poised to Pick Oil Tycoon as Secretary of State

  • FILE - In this Friday, March 27, 2015 file photo, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson delivers remarks on the release of a report by the National Petroleum Council on oil drilling in the Arctic, in Washington. On Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016, President-elect Donald Trump moved closer to nominating Tillerson as his secretary of state, meeting privately with the business leader for the second time in a week. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Tribune Washington Bureau
Published: 12/11/2016 12:23:29 AM
Modified: 12/11/2016 12:23:30 AM

Washington — In a decision that could alter U.S. relations with one of its principal rivals, President-elect Donald Trump is expected to choose Rex Tillerson, a powerful oil tycoon with close ties to Russia’s president, as secretary of State, according to media reports.

Tillerson, chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corp., one of the largest companies in the world, is likely to face rocky Senate confirmation hearings because of his company’s business interests with Russia if he is formally nominated.

Many in Congress already are worried about Trump’s refusal to recognize what the U.S. intelligence community has concluded was hacking by Russia and an attempt to help Trump win the presidential race.

The Trump transition team said no official announcement would be made until this week at the earliest, and they cautioned that other contenders had not been completely eliminated. Trump often changes his mind, and the Tillerson nomination would be highly controversial.

Speaking in an interview to be broadcast today on Fox TV, Trump expressed admiration for Tillerson, without confirming he was the choice.

“He’s much more than a business executive,” Trump told interviewer Chris Wallace. “He’s a real player.”

Tillerson, 64, has been Exxon’s chief executive for the last decade and often is included on lists of the country’s highest paid executives.

He emerged as a dark horse candidate for the State Department job last week after Trump conducted an unusual public selection process, interviewing a series of high-profile candidates.

Tillerson joined the global energy company in 1975 as a production engineer, and then worked his way up through the executive ranks.

The Texas native is the rare American who has had a personal relationship for years with Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer who has been Russia’s president since 2012 and has frequently clashed with the Obama administration.

Putin bestowed Russia’s Order of Friendship on Tillerson 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 Crimea peninsula in 2014, Tillerson lobbied against U.S. sanctions because Exxon would lose millions of dollars.

The Obama administration, with congressional backing, imposed the sanctions on Russia anyway, and Exxon was forced to abandon projects estimated to have cost it about $1 billion.

Exxon claims oil and gas operations in 50 countries on six continents. As its executive, Tillerson has traveled the world to strike deals, making contacts with leaders of all stripes.

Tillerson had been expected to retire from Exxon next year.

The oil industry is seen by critics as a rapacious business that has propped up dictators and run roughshod over environmental concerns and local indigenous groups in countries around the world.

That baggage almost certainly will follow Tillerson to his confirmation hearing if he is nominated.

Trump turned to Tillerson after his longtime friend and ally Rudolph W. Giuliani, the combative and increasingly strident former mayor of New York, dropped out of the race Friday.

Trump apparently liked Tillerson’s brash, take-no-prisoners style of making a deal.

How that will play on the global stage of diplomacy is another question.

Environmentalists were appalled as the news spread on Saturday.

Trump “told the world we are the United States of Exxon,” said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth-U.S. “He wants to create a government controlled by robber barons that will accelerate the demise of workers, the environment and any semblance of a government for and by the people.”

Tillerson has also expressed doubts about climate change as a phenomenon caused by human action. That puts him in accord with Trump, who has suggested global warming is a hoax perpetrated by China.

Resistance wasn’t just from the left.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the GOP presidential nominee in 2008, said he had “concerns” about the reported pick and would want to explore Tillerson’s ties with Russia during confirmation hearings.

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