(Adds potential Senate confirmation troubles)
By Valerie Volcovici and Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON Dec 11 The central question facing
Exxon Mobil Corp Chief Executive Rex Tillerson if he
becomes U.S. secretary of state is whether a lifelong oil man
with close ties to Russia can pivot from advancing corporate
interests to serving the national interest.
Tillerson, 64, got his start as a production engineer at
Exxon in 1975 and has worked there ever since, running business
units in Yemen, Thailand and Russia before being named chief
executive in 2006. He was expected to retire next year.
Senior senators, both Democrats and Republicans, have
expressed concern over Tillerson, who emerged this weekend as
Donald Trump's expected pick for secretary of state, according
to a source familiar with the situation. By choosing him, the
president-elect would add another - and presumably highly
influential - person to his Cabinet and circle of advisers who
may favor a soft line toward Moscow.
Among these is Trump's choice for national security adviser,
Michael Flynn, who raised eyebrows when he sat beside Russian
President Vladimir Putin at a Moscow banquet last year and who
has argued that the United States and Russia should collaborate
to end Syria's civil war and to defeat Islamic State militants.
Tillerson's links with Russia came under fire from top
lawmakers on Sunday.
"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 color his approach to
Vladimir Putin and the Russian threat," Republican Senator John
McCain told CBS.
McCain added that Tillerson would, nonetheless, get a fair
Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a former Republican
presidential rival to Trump, was even more forthright.
"Being a "friend of Vladimir" is not an attribute I am
hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState," Rubio said on his Twitter
'A STRAIGHT ARROW'?
Many U.S. officials are worried by Russia's increasingly
aggressive behavior. It annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, has
supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil
war and is accused of interfering in U.S. domestic politics.
U.S. intelligence analysts have concluded that Russia
intervened in the 2016 election to help Trump defeat Hillary
Clinton, and not just to undermine confidence in the U.S.
electoral system, a senior U.S. official said.
In his role at Exxon, Tillerson maintained close ties with
Putin and opposed U.S. sanctions against Russia for its
incursion into Crimea.
Daniel Yergin, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The
Prize: the Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power," said Russia
represented a relatively small portion of Exxon's overall
operations and played down its significance.
"It was a business relationship," Yergin said.
"The whole Russian thing is so much front and center now so
it's inevitable that those questions be asked but, obviously, if
you are a major oil company, you want to go to where your
resources (are). You have to replace your reserves," he added.
"If he becomes secretary of state, the interests he will
pursue will be U.S. interests. This is an Eagle Scout kind of
guy. He was president of the Boy Scouts," he said. "He is a
straight arrow. If that's his mission, that's what he'll do."
Trump praised Tillerson, saying on his Twitter account on
Saturday: "Whether I choose him or not for "State"- Rex
Tillerson, the Chairman & CEO of ExxonMobil, is a world class
player and dealmaker. Stay tuned!"
Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman
who has been tapped to serve as White House chief of Staff,
praised Tillerson's relationship with Putin.
"... the fact that he actually has a relationship with
people like Vladimir Putin and others across the globe is
something that ... we shouldn't be embarrassed by it. It's
something that I think could be a huge advantage to the United
States," Priebus said on ABC This Week.
However, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a senior
Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that
would weigh Tillerson's nomination, was unsparing in his
criticism of the possible appointment.
"Reports that Rex Tillerson could be nominated to be our
nation's top diplomat (are) alarming and absurd," he said. "With
Rex Tillerson as our secretary of state the Trump administration
would be guaranteeing Russia has a willing accomplice in the
president's cabinet guiding our nation's foreign policy."
Republicans will hold more seats, 52, in the Senate than the
51 they will need to confirm Tillerson. But they will have only
10 of the 19 seats in the Foreign Relations Committee, so it
will only take one Republican dissenter there to endanger the
At least one Republican committee member, Rubio, has already
Tillerson would be one of the few people selected for major
roles in the Trump administration to believe that human activity
causes climate change.
After Trump's election, Exxon came out in support of the
Paris Climate Agreement. It has also advocated for a carbon tax
and internally factors in a theoretical price on carbon as it
weighs manufacturing and exploration costs of projects.
But some environmental groups are alarmed at the prospect of
Exxon's CEO as the country's top diplomat.
Exxon is under investigation by the New York Attorney
General's Office for allegedly misleading investors, regulators
and the public on what it knew about global warming.
"Donald Trump appears intent to undo a century of
environmental and social progress and return America to the age
of robber barons and corporate trusts," said Carroll Muffett,
president of the Center for International Environmental Law.
"Who better to turn to than Exxon, the granddaddy of them
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, John Walcott, Lindsay
Dunsmuir, Howard Schneider, Patricia Zengerle and Dmitry
Zhdannikov; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Mary Milliken)