NEW YORK (AP) — President-elect Donald Trump announced Tuesday he has picked ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state, saying that he's "among the most accomplished business leaders and international deal makers in the world."
"Rex Tillerson's career is the embodiment of the American dream. Through hard work, dedication and smart deal making, Rex rose through the ranks to become CEO of ExxonMobil, one of the world's largest and most respected companies," the billionaire real estate mogul said in a pre-dawn news release from Trump Tower in New York.
Tillerson "knows how to manage a global enterprise, which is crucial to running a successful State Department," Trump said of his latest — and much-discussed — Cabinet pick.
In an accompanying statement, Tillerson said he was "honored" by his selection and shares Trump's "vision for restoring the credibility of the United States' foreign relations and advancing our country's national security."
But Tillerson has close ties to Russia and President Vladimir Putin, and his selection sets up a potential Senate confirmation fight. On Capitol Hill, leading Republicans have already expressed anxieties about him as they contend with intelligence assessments saying Russia interfered with the U.S. presidential election to help Trump.
Still, Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that will hold confirmation hearings in January, called Tillerson "a very impressive individual" with "an extraordinary working knowledge of the world." Corker, who had been in the mix for the secretary of state job, said Trump called him Monday to inform him of the pick.
Trump said he saw Tillerson's deep relations with Moscow as a selling point. As ExxonMobil's head, Tillerson maintained close ties with Russia and was awarded by President Vladimir Putin with the Order of Friendship in 2013, an honor for a foreign citizen. Trump called Tillerson a "world class player" in an interview on "Fox News Sunday."
For weeks, Trump has teased out the decision process publicly, often exposing rifts in his organization. He also considered former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a one-time vocal Trump critic, and Corker of Tennessee. Romney wrote on Facebook Monday that it "was an honor to have been considered" for the job.
Trump's unconventional Cabinet vetting procedures are in keeping with his presidential style thus far, unconcerned with tradition or business as usual. In recent weeks, he's attacked CIA intelligence, spoken to the leader of Taiwan — irritating China — and has continued his late-night Twitter tirades.
Beijing is looking forward to working with the new secretary of state "to push forward greater progress of the bilateral relationship on a new starting point," China's foreign ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, said Tuesday.
Trump heads out Tuesday for another week of travel, starting with a rally in Wisconsin.
In Washington, a congressional investigation is in the works over a CIA assessment that Russia interfered in the November election on his behalf. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Monday that Congress will investigate the agency's conclusion, which the incoming commander in chief has called "ridiculous."
The CIA recently concluded with "high confidence" that Russia sought to influence the U.S. election on behalf of Trump, raising red flags among lawmakers concerned about the sanctity of the U.S. voting system and potentially straining relations at the start of Trump's administration.
On Twitter Monday, Trump pushed back, saying: "Can you imagine if the election results were the opposite and WE tried to play the Russia/CIA card. It would be called conspiracy theory!"
But McConnell said flatly, "The Russians are not our friends." And House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said in statement that a House Intelligence Committee probe of cyberthreats by other countries and terrorist groups "will continue and has my support." The White House has also embraced the congressional inquiry, saying that it "is certainly warranted when you consider the stakes and the consequences."
Putin, meanwhile, said he was ready to meet with Trump "at any moment."
In the transcript of his interview with journalists which was released Tuesday in Moscow, Putin said "it's widely known that the elected president of the United States has publicly called for the normalization of the Russian-American relationship. We cannot but support this." Putin added that he thought a meeting with Trump would be more likely after Trump's January inauguration.
"We understand it will not be a simple task considering the extent of degradation of the Russian-American relationship," he said. "But we are prepared to do our bit."
If confirmed by the Senate, Tillerson's test will be whether his corporate deal-making skills translate into the delicate world of international diplomacy. He would face immediate challenges in Syria, where a civil war rages on, and in China, given Trump's recent suggestions that he could take a more aggressive approach to dealing with Beijing.
A native of Wichita Falls, Texas, Tillerson came to ExxonMobil Corp. as a production engineer straight out of the University of Texas at Austin in 1975 and never left. Groomed for an executive position, Tillerson came up in the rough-and-tumble world of oil production, holding posts in the company's central United States, Yemen and Russian operations.
Early in the company's efforts to gain access to the Russian market, Tillerson cut a deal with state-owned Rosneft. The neglected post-Soviet company didn't have a tremendous amount to offer, but Exxon partnered with it "to be on the same side of the table," Tillerson said, according to "Private Empire," an investigative history of Exxon by Steve Coll.
Tillerson, who became CEO on Jan. 1, 2006, is expected to retire in 2017. Tillerson's heir apparent, Darren Woods, was put in place a year ago, so there would be virtually no additional disruption to Exxon's succession plans if Tillerson were to become secretary of state.