Trump's pick of Rex Tillerson for US secretary of state sparks concern

Exxon Mobil CEO and Chairman Rex Tillerson speaks during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, on May 12, 2011.
Exxon Mobil CEO and Chairman Rex Tillerson speaks during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, on May 12, 2011.PHOTO: REUTERS

ExxonMobil CEO Tillerson's ties with Putin worry Republicans

ExxonMobil's chief executive, Mr Rex Tillerson, has been officially nominated the next US secretary of state - but his confirmation will not be easy because his ties to Russia have caused concern even from key Republicans.

"I have chosen one of the truly great business leaders of the world, Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, to be secretary of state,'' President-elect Donald Trump tweeted yesterday.

"The thing I like best about Rex Tillerson is that he has vast experience at dealing successfully with all types of foreign governments."

The Texas oil man, 64, worked his way up the ranks at the world's sixth-largest corporation, reportedly worth US$246 billion (S$350 billion).

He knows Russia's leadership well, thanks to Exxon's operations there. In 2013, he was awarded the Order of Friendship by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

 

But in an indication of the fight to come over his confirmation, Republican Senator Marco Rubio tweeted over the weekend that "Being a 'friend of Vladimir' is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState''. Yesterday, he said in a statement he had "serious concerns" about the nomination.

Another Republican Senator, Mr John McCain, said: "It's a matter of concern to me that he has such a close personal relationship with Vladimir Putin. And obviously they've done enormous deals together. That… would colour his approach to Vladimir Putin and the Russian threat.''

'SERIOUS CONCERNS'

Being a 'friend of Vladimir' is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState.

'' REPUBLICAN SENATOR MARCO RUBIO


CONTROVERSIAL FRIENDSHIP

It's a matter of concern to me that he has such a close personal relationship with Vladimir Putin. And obviously they've done enormous deals together. That… would colour his approach to Vladimir Putin and the Russian threat.

REPUBLICAN SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN

With 10 Republicans and nine Democrats sitting in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it would take only one Republican defection to block the appointment.

But the committee's chairman, Republican Senator Bob Corker, yesterday said: "Mr Tillerson is a very impressive individual and has an extraordinary working knowledge of the world." The hearing will take place early next month.

Mr Trump, during his election campaign, had brushed off accusations that he admired Mr Putin. But he also insisted there was nothing wrong in being friends with Russia.

"Tillerson clearly understands the world and how it works and many of the powerful people that run it (but) will face perhaps more obstacles than any other Trump Cabinet choice,'' Mr Michael Kugelman, a senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, told The Straits Times.

"Then again, the more sanguine-minded may point to Tiller- son's strongly pro-Russia position and contend that the perpetually fraught US-Russia relationship is finally poised to improve."

Looming over the process is a controversy over alleged Russian interference in last month's presidential election. Mr Trump has dismissed the allegations as "ridiculous" and politically motivated.

Environmental groups, perturbed by Mr Trump's scepticism on climate change, are incensed at the nomination of Mr Tillerson.

 Mr Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, the country's largest grassroots environmental organisation, said in a statement: "Trump's Cabinet represents a who's who of climate deniers and fossil-fuel hacks, so we're shocked but not surprised that he chose the head of one of the world's largest and most environmentally disastrous oil companies to be his ambassador to the world."

Clearly, Mr Trump went ahead with Mr Tillerson's nomination despite the criticisms.

"Among the most accomplished business leaders and international dealmakers in the world, Mr Tillerson…  knows how to manage a global organisation and successfully navigate the complex architecture of world affairs and diverse foreign leaders," the transition team said in announcing the nomination.

"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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2016, with the headline 'Pick for top US diplomat sparks concern'. Print Edition | Subscribe