Trump’s pick for top diplomat sets stage for US senate fight

Exxon chief Rex Tillerson could face tough confirmation hearing over links to Putin

Donald Trump's nomination of Exxon Mobil chief Rex Tillerson as secretary of state has divided opinion, setting the stage for a contentious confirmation fight in the US senate over his close ties with Russia.

The president-elect described the Texas oil company executive – an unorthodox pick as America’s top diplomat – as “among the most accomplished business leaders and international dealmakers in the world”.

Mr Tillerson, a life-time Exxon employee, has experience brokering deals with foreign companies for the world's largest oil and gas company, although his close relations with the Kremlin through the US company's joint ventures with Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft has raised concerns in US political circles.

Three Republican senators – John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio – have expressed reservations about the appointment of a corporate executive so close to Russian leader Vladimir Putin to lead the country's diplomatic corps.


“While Rex Tillerson is a respected businessman, I have serious concerns about his nomination,” Mr Rubio said.

“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.”

Inflame tensions

The nomination will further inflame tensions over claims that Russia intervened in the US presidential election in Mr Trump’s favour by hacking Democratic computers and leaking damage emails.

Coming hot on the heels of Mr Tillerson's nomination, the Trump transition team disclosed that Mr Trump intends to name former Texas governor Rick Perry, a climate change sceptic, as his energy secretary. This will put another ally of the oil industry at the next president's cabinet table.

Mr Perry famously forgot during a presidential debate that he wanted to abolish the department when he ran for the US presidency in the 2012 campaign. His “oops!” blooper helped torpedo his presidential bid.

The longest-serving governor of the Lone Star state, he took charge in 2000 and left office in early 2015. He ran unsuccessfully for the US presidency again this year but dropped out.

During his time in politics, Mr Perry received large donations from the oil industry and since leaving office has worked as a board member for energy industry Dallas billionaire Kelcy Warren, chief executive of Energy Transfer Partners – the company that is trying to build a 1,200-mile pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois that has drawn protests by members of the Standing Rock Sioux and other Native American tribes.

‘Barking carnival act’

After dropping out of the presidential race, he endorsed Trump rival Ted Cruz, a fellow Texan, and denounced Mr Trump as a "barking carnival act". The two men appeared to forget those bitter campaign moments when they met for 45 minutes at Trump Tower in New York on Monday.

Like Mr Perry, Mr Tillerson is also opposed to tackling climate change and has said that he refused to “fake it” by pushing Exxon’s involvement in “greenwashing” where fossil fuel companies declare themselves to be environmentally friendly but continue to produce and sell fuel that damaged the planet.

The Washington Post also reported that US scientists, fearful that decades of climate change research could disappear under a hostile Trump administration, were duplicating reams of government data on to independent servers in an effort safeguard information from political interference.

Mr Tillerson's decades of work with Exxon in Russia will bring first-hand knowledge of the power structures within the Kremlin to Mr Trump's White House as the soon-to-be-inaugurated 45th American president has signalled an intention to restore friendlier relations with Mr Putin's regime.

“He 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,” Mr Trump said in a statement.

Mr Tillerson's nomination was welcomed by former senior administration officials. Condoleezza Rice, who was secretary of state to Republican president George W Bush, described Mr Tillerson as "an excellent choice" and said he would bring "remarkable and broad international experience, a deep understanding of the global economy and a belief in America's special role in the world".

Former secretary of defence Robert Gates, who served Mr Bush and later President Barack Obama, said that Mr Trump's nominee would bring "vast knowledge, experience and success in dealing with dozens of governments and leaders in every corner of the world".

The Washington Post reported on Tuesday night that Mr Trump had approached Montana congressman Ryan Zinke to serve as secretary of the Department of the Interior.

Mr Zinke, who studied geology and served as a Navy Seal before entering politics, campaigned on a platform of achieving North American energy independence.

The president-in-waiting also met rapper Kanye West in Trump Tower. Mr Trump told reporters the two had been friends “for a long time” and that they discussed “life”.

Bill Gates was another visitor to Mr Trump's Manhattan skyscraper, telling reporters afterwards that they had "a good conversation about innovation, how it can help in health, education, the impact of foreign aid and energy".

Mr Trump was due to meet other technology company bosses including Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple and Elon Musk of Tesla.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent