WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump has selected Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson to lead the State Department, dismissing concerns about the businessman's close ties with Russia, two people close to Trump's transition said Monday night.
Trump's decision caps a lengthy process that often played out in public and exposed rifts within his transition team. It also sets Trump up for a potential fight with Congress over confirming Tillerson, who has connections with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump was set to announce Tillerson's nomination Tuesday morning. The people close to his transition team insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the decision ahead of that announcement.
The president-elect had moved toward choosing Tillerson after a meeting Saturday, their second discussion in a week. Trump was said to be drawn to the idea of having an international businessman serve as the nation's top diplomat.
But the prospect of Tillerson's nomination sparked immediate concern on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are already grappling with intelligence assessments suggesting Russia interfered with the U.S. presidential election to help Trump. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., wrote on Twitter that "being a 'friend of Vladimir'" was not an attribute he was seeking in a secretary of state.
In a weekend interview with "Fox News Sunday," Trump cast Tillerson's deep relations with Moscow as a selling point. As Exxon Mobil's head, he maintained close ties with Russia and was awarded by Putin with the Order of Friendship in 2013, an honor for a foreign citizen.
"A great advantage is he knows many of the players, and he knows them well. He does massive deals in Russia. He does massive deals for the company," Trump said.
If confirmed by the Senate, Tillerson's test will be whether his corporate deal-making skills translate into the delicate world of international diplomacy. He would face immediate challenges in Syria, where a civil war rages on, and in China, given Trump's recent suggestions that he could take a more aggressive approach to dealing with Beijing.
A native of Wichita Falls, Texas, Tillerson came to Exxon Mobil Corp. as a production engineer straight out of the University of Texas at Austin in 1975 and never left. Groomed for an executive position, Tillerson came up in the rough-and-tumble world of oil production, holding posts in the company's central United States, Yemen and Russian operations.
Early in the company's efforts to gain access to Russian market, Tillerson cut a deal with state-owned Rosneft. The neglected post-Soviet company didn't have a tremendous amount to offer, but Exxon partnered with it "to be on the same side of the table," Tillerson said, according to "Private Empire," an investigative history of Exxon by reporter Steve Coll.
Tillerson, who became CEO on Jan. 1, 2006, is expected to retire in 2017. Tillerson's heir apparent, Darren Woods, was put in place a year ago, so there would be virtually no additional disruption to Exxon's succession plans if Tillerson were to become secretary of state.
Trump's choice to serve as secretary of state initially appeared to be a toss-up between former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee. But Giuliani's prospects fell amid revelations of his overseas business ties. And Romney became the source of a fierce fight within the transition team, with some advisers strongly opposed to the prospect of tapping a Republican who was critical of Trump during the campaign.
Indeed, Romney blasted Trump as a "fraud" during his White House run, but was full of praise for the president-elect after they discussed the State Department post over a private dinner in Manhattan.
Late Monday, Romney wrote in a Facebook post that he was honored to have been considered to lead the State Department. He said his discussions with Trump were "enjoyable and enlightening."
"I have very high hopes that the new administration will lead the nation to greater strength, prosperity and peace," Romney wrote.