President-elect Donald Trump is considering Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his nominee for Secretary of State, capping a month-long audition process ripped from his former days as a reality television show host.
While Trump has not formally announced the pick, two sources close to the transition team said Trump has made a decision, while also cautioning that until it is public there is always a chance that the President-elect could change his mind.
If chosen, Tillerson would be the most dramatic example of Trump’s preference for wealthy outsiders like himself among his Cabinet. The one-time production engineer has earned hundreds of millions’ worth of Exxon stock over the years, according to a Washington Post report from earlier this year.
A 40-year employee of the energy giant, Tillerson would be the first person in at least a century to be elevated to the post without prior government experience. His close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship in 2013, and his extensive business dealings with governments around the world are already drawing scrutiny, setting up a potentially messy confirmation battle in the Senate.
Trump and his aides agonized for weeks over whom to select to the role of the nation’s top diplomat, meeting with an ideologically diverse group that revealed lingering questions over how the President-elect will present his Administration to the world.
Trump initially considered former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for the post, but broadened the short-list to more than a half-dozen names amid infighting in his transition team. The consideration of Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, was viewed as an overture to the Republican Establishment which shunned Trump even once he became the GOP nominee this summer. Romney, who never endorsed his party’s standard-bearer and accused him of engaging in bigotry and misogyny, was effusive in his praise of Trump when they met for dinner in New York City last month as part of the interview process.
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While the rest of the Cabinet took shape, Trump continued to take meetings with an ever-longer list of hopefuls for the Secretary of State post, reflecting divergent visions for the job. Trump and Tillerson met for the second time in as many weeks Saturday at Trump Tower, according to a transition official.
In an interview with Fox News Sunday this week, Trump praised Tillerson and defended him from charges that he is unqualified for the post. “He’s much more than a business executive. I mean, he’s a world-class player,” Trump said.
“To me, a great advantage is he knows many of the players, and he knows them well,” Trump added. “He does massive deals in Russia. He does massive deals for the company, not for himself, for the company.”
Tillerson appears to share Trump’s desire to dramatically reshape the U.S.’s relationship with Russia, which has grown increasingly antagonistic amid crises in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The Exxon Mobil boss has been an opponent of U.S. sanctions on the Russian regime after its annexation of Crimea and involvement in Eastern Ukraine.
“We always encourage the people who are making those decisions to consider the very broad collateral damage of who are they really harming with sanctions,” he said at his company’s annual meeting in 2014. The sanctions blocked a 12-figure partnership between Exxon and the Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft.
The selection of Tillerson comes just a day after the White House announced it is launching a review into Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. The U.S. intelligence community has said publicly it has high confidence of Russian involvement in hacks of the Democratic National Committee and a top aide to Hillary Clinton. Trump, who has been repeatedly briefed on those conclusions, rejected them in an interview with TIME on Nov. 28. “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe they interfered,” he said. When pressed whether he thought the intelligence assessment blaming Russia was politically driven, he replied, “I think so.”
In an unsigned statement released Friday night, Trump’s transition team attacked the intelligence community’s assessment, saying “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
Tillerson is the latest Trump Cabinet selection to differ with the President-elect on free trade, one of the central issues of Trump’s campaign. He has spoken positively of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade agreement Trump has pledged to pull the U.S. out of at the start of his Administration.
Environmental groups were quick to condemn Tillerson’s selection because of his role at a leading fossil fuel supplier.
Tillerson marks the latest high-net-worth individual to be selected to fill Trump’s Cabinet, including billionaires Wilbur Ross and Betsy Devos, and former hedge fund manager Steve Mnuchin. Like the other intended Cabinet nominees, Tillerson stands to gain by deferring paying taxes on his stock holdings once they are placed in a government-approved blind trust.
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