Rex Tillerson, Exxon CEO close to Russia's Putin, may be next US Secretary of State

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A source says US President-elect Donald Trump is expected to name Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as the country's top diplomat.
Texas oil man Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil, is the favourite to be nominated Secretary of State by US President-elect Donald Trump, multiple media reports have said. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - Texas oil man Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil, is the favourite to be nominated Secretary of State by US President-elect Donald Trump, multiple media reports have said - though there has been no confirmation from President-elect Donald Trump's transition team.

Mr Tillerson, 64, has worked at oil giant Exxon since 1975. He has no formal diplomatic experience, but knows Russia's leadership well. According to his official biography on the Exxon website he was responsible at one time for Exxon's holdings in Russia and the Caspian Sea, and off Sakhalin Island in Russia's far east.

In 2013 he was awarded the Order of Friendship by Russia's President Vladimir Putin. In August 2014, President Putin lauded Exxon Mobil Corp as an "old and reliable partner" as he, via a video link, gave an order for Exxon and partner OAO Rosneft to start drilling a US$700 million (S$1 billion) oil well in the Arctic Ocean.

At the time Mr Putin said: "Despite current political difficulties, pragmatism and common sense prevails." "Nowadays, commercial success is defined by an efficient international cooperation. Businesses, including the largest domestic and foreign companies, understand this perfectly."

Mr Trump during his campaign, brushed off allegations that he knew and admired Mr Putin - but also said repeatedly that there was nothing wrong in seeking a better relationship with US rival Russia.

Mr Tillerson has the "best personal relationship with Putin of any American. Big big changes coming", tweeted Ian Bremmer, political scientist and president of the consultancy Eurasia Group.

Analysts say one potential policy change going forward could be the lifting of US sanctions on Russia.

Mr Tillerson would be coming out from among a pool of candidates said to include former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis, and former Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has removed himself from the pool.

Meanwhile the spotlight has turned to Russia's possible role in the US election. The Washington Post on Friday (Dec 9) reported that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had concluded that Russia intervened in the election to help Mr Trump win.

"Intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, according to US officials'' the Post reported.

"Those officials described the individuals as actors known to the intelligence community and part of a wider Russian operation to boost Trump and hurt Clinton's chances."

The Post quoted an unnamed senior US official briefed on an intelligence presentation made to Senators, saying: "It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia's goal here was to favour one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected.''

Mr Trump's Presidential transition team on Friday reacted with a brief emailed statement saying: "These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It's now time to move on.''

On Saturday the New York Times reported that US officials believed Russian hackers also obtained documents from the Republican National Committee but these were not passed on to Wikileaks.

President Barack Obama on Friday directed intelligence agencies to conduct a full review of what happened during the 2016 election process. The report is to be ready by Jan 20, the day Mr Obama hands over to Mr Trump.

It is not clear if the report will be made public. But Democratic politicians are unlikely to ease up on the issue. On Saturday, incoming Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer reportedly called for a full bipartisan congressional investigation into reports of Russian interference in the election. This could continue after Mr Obama leaves office.

"Senate Democrats will join with our Republican colleagues next year to demand a congressional investigation and hearings to get to the bottom of this. It's imperative that our intelligence community turns over any relevant information so that Congress can conduct a full investigation," Mr Schumer said.

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