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President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson is the first salvo in a likely difficult confirmation fight.
Though some Republicans, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, were quick to praise Tillerson’s international business experience working with foreign governments, Tillerson’s nomination was met with deep skepticism from both parties over his embodiment of the most contentious 2016 campaign issues: Trump’s closeness with Russia, climate change skepticism, and potential business conflicts of interest.
Unlike the other candidates Trump considered for secretary of state Trump, including Sen. Bob Corker and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Tillerson has deep ties to Russia.
As Exxon Mobil’s CEO, Tillerson helped steward the company’s entry into post-Soviet Union Russia, developing deep connections with the Russia elite business class and meeting with President Vladimir Putin repeatedly to discuss issues such as the joint Arctic drilling project Exxon Mobil developed with Russian government-backed energy companies. The relationship blossomed, and in 2012 Putin awarded Tillerson a civilian medal for his business relationship with Russia.
Exxon Mobil also has billions to gain from the US lifting sanctions on Russia, a policy that Tillerson publicly opposed.
Many prominent Republican foreign policy hawks have already publicly expressed concern about Tillerson’s Russia ties, a problem likely exacerbated by reports that the CIA believes Russia actively interfered in the 2016 presidential election by leaking embarrassing private emails from top Democrats.
Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted on Sunday that being a “‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState.”
Following Tillerson’s nomination, he doubled down on his skepticism.
“While Rex Tillerson is a respected businessman, I have serious concerns about his nomination,” Rubio said in a statement.
“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. I look forward to learning more about his record and his views.”
Sen. John McCain also raised questions about Tillerson in multiple interviews over the weekend, though he cautioned that he would not “prejudge” the CEO.
“I’m concerned about his relationship with Vladimir Putin,” McCain told Fox News, referring to Putin as a “thug” and a “murderer.”
“When he gets the friendship award from a butcher, frankly it’s an issue that I think needs to be examined,” McCain added.
In a statement on Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham praised Tillerson’s business acumen but hinted that he planned to make Tillerson’s relationship with Russia a key issue in the confirmation process.
“I look forward to meeting Mr. Tillerson and discussing his worldview – especially his views of the US-Russian relationship,” Graham said. “Based upon his extensive business dealings with the Putin government and his previous opposition of efforts to impose sanctions on the Russian government, there are many questions which must be answered. I expect the US-Russian relationship to be front and center in his confirmation process.”
As the data journalism website FiveThirtyEight noted, seven top Republicans already signed a letter urging Trump to continue to oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and backing a potential congressional investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, a sign that these lawmakers may be wary of Tillerson’s closeness with Putin.
For their part, Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which hears testimony from nominees before the Senate votes on them, expressed skepticism about Tillerson’s relationship with Russia.
Sen. Ben Cardin said in a statement that he was “deeply troubled” by Tillerson’s relationship with Putin as well as his public opposition to sanctions on Russia after it invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea.
Many Democrats also plan to make issue of Tillerson’s beliefs about climate change.
Sen. Ben Cardin said Trump should “expect a major battle” if he nominated Tillerson, citing potential conflicts of interest because of Tillerson’s ownership of over $200 million in Exxon Mobil stock, as well as the oil company’s long battle with environmental activists.
“Nominating Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state would be handing over the keys to US foreign policy to Big Oil,” Cardin said in a statement last week. “Donald Trump would be sending a strong signal to OPEC and the entire global fossil fuel industry that oil will be America’s primary foreign policy priority. We cannot allow oil to replace diplomacy as the currency of the State Department.”