, Washington, United States, Dec 13 – President-elect Donald Trump on Tuesday nominated ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson as America’s next secretary of state, flouting concerns from allies and foes alike about the oilman’s deep ties to Russia.
The nomination, which caps weeks of debate about the right candidate, was the most keenly awaited among Trump’s appointments as the world waits to see how the 70-year-old Republican billionaire intends to alter US foreign policy.
Trump has stoked alarm among Democrats and fellow Republicans ahead of his January 20 inauguration by calling for closer ties with Moscow, in contrast to received wisdom in Washington that Russia remains a global security threat.
That sentiment, coupled to the fact that Trump has dismissed a CIA assessment that Russia deployed hackers to help him win the election — could complicate Tillerson’s confirmation hearings before a wary Senate.
Trump said Tillerson, who has spent his entire professional career to date at ExxonMobil, had “second to none” relationships with world leaders.
The 64-year-old Texan, who has no previous government experience, “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.
The Kremlin welcomed his nomination with an aide praising him as a “very solid figure” with whom President Vladimir Putin and other Russians have “good, business-like relations.”
Tillerson, who was awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship by Putin in 2013, has publicly opposed sanctions on Moscow that thwarted his attempt to pursue huge oil deals in the Russian Arctic.
He joined ExxonMobil in 1975 as an engineer, before rising to become president and chief executive, overseeing business activities in more than 50 countries. Appointed CEO in 2006, he had been due to retire in March.
– Putin’s friend? –
A series of establishment Republicans, including former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and James Baker, and former defense secretary Robert Gates lined up to praise Tillerson.
The head of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries hailed the nomination, calling Tillerson “a great asset” to the incoming administration.
As a candidate he beat off a string of arguably more experienced contenders, including former CIA director David Petraeus and erstwhile Trump critic and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
But his lack of formal policy and government experience, and embedded relationship with a hugely powerful energy company is bound to result in sharp questions in the Senate confirmation hearings.
Senior Republican Senator John McCain has called Tillerson’s ties to Putin “a matter of concern.”
“Vladimir Putin is a thug, bully and a murderer, and anybody else who describes him as anything else is lying,” McCain has said.
Senator Marco Rubio, a former Trump rival for the Republican White House nomination, tweeted: “Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryofState.”
Leading senators — including McCain — have backed a congressional probe into US intelligence assessments on Russian election interference, putting top Republicans on a collision course with Trump, who dismissed the reports as “ridiculous”.
If confirmed, Tillerson will face the hugely sensitive job of representing overseas a president apparently intent on trashing protocol and upending relationships built on decades of delicate diplomacy.
Beyond thorny ties with Russia, Sino-US relations are strained after a series of moves by Trump that provoked China, the world’s second-largest economy, and controversy is also rife over his global business empire.
– Business controversy –
Critics argue that it would be an unprecedented ethical conflict for Trump to maintain interest in properties spanning the globe — investments that rely partly on goodwill from foreign governments and regulators.
Trump postponed a press conference originally set for Thursday at which he was to unveil plans for separating himself from his global business dealings, instead taking to Twitter.
“No new deals will be done during my term(s) in office,” he tweeted late Monday, adding that his two adult sons, Don and Eric, would manage his company.
With Tillerson’s nomination, Trump is wrapping up the process of building a cabinet. Multiple reports say he has chosen former Texas governor Rick Perry to be energy secretary.
He greeted the usual stream of officials at Trump Tower on Tuesday — along with rapper Kanye West. The president-elect said the unusual pair discussed “life.”
Entertainment site E! News later reported that Trump wanted to make West an “ambassador of sorts” involved in “entrepreneurial leadership.”
He also met Bill Gates, the richest man on the planet who dedicates his life to philanthropy, and who said Trump had an opportunity to inspire Americans to embrace innovation as John F. Kennedy once promoted space exploration.
“We had a good conversation about innovation, how it can help in health, education, the impact of foreign aid and energy, and a wide-ranging conversation about power of innovation,” Gates said afterward.
Later Tuesday, Trump is scheduled to headline yet another “thank you” rally, this time in the traditionally Democrat-leaning state of Wisconsin, which helped to cement his shock defeat of Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.