Rex Tillerson, the president and chief executive of ExxonMobil, has been officially named as Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of state, setting up a potential confirmation fight in the Senate.
Senators from both parties have raised concerns about his lack of experience and close ties to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
Trump hailed Tillerson as “among the most accomplished business leaders and international deal makers in the world” in a statement released on Tuesday morning by his transition team.
“His tenacity, broad experience and deep understanding of geopolitics make him an excellent choice for secretary of state,” Trump said. “He will promote regional stability and focus on the core national security interests of the United States.”
On Twitter he called Tillerson “one of the truly great business leaders of the world” and added: “The thing I like best about Rex Tillerson is that he has vast experience at dealing successfully with all types of foreign governments.”
The announcement of the oil executive for the role of top diplomat comes after a selection process that considered figures including the former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and the former CIA chief David Petraeus.
Tillerson’s confirmation hearings are likely to be a bitter and emotional struggle. He is a recipient of Moscow’s Order of Friendship, having grown close to Putin and his circle while working on oil exploration in Russia, which was frozen when the US imposed sanctions in 2014.
He may also face questions from senators over the potential benefits to ExxonMobil from US foreign policy if sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea were lifted.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said: “While Rex Tillerson is a respected businessman, I have serious concerns about his nomination. The next secretary of state must be someone who views the world with moral clarity, is free of potential conflicts of interest, has a clear sense of America’s interests, and will be a forceful advocate for America’s foreign policy goals to the president, within the administration, and on the world stage.”
Rubio added: “I look forward to learning more about his record and his views. I will do my part to ensure he receives a full and fair but also thorough hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.”
The Kremlin praised Tillerson on Monday. “On account of his work as the head of one of the largest oil companies, he had contacts with our representatives more than once,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists. “He fulfils his responsibilities in a highly professional manner.”
Romney confirmed on Monday he would not be part of the Trump administration. The former Massachusetts governor, who was always an odd choice for Trump’s cabinet given the pair’s scathing attacks on one another during the campaign, called it an “honor to have been considered for secretary of state”.
The news comes days after reports that US intelligence officials had concluded that the Kremlin tried to intervene in the 2016 election to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton, according to officials quoted anonymously in the Washington Post and New York Times.
On Friday, Barack Obama ordered the agencies to review all evidence about Russian interference in the election, including hacks on political organizations including the Democratic National Committee.
And on Monday the Republican Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, opened the door to congressional investigation of Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election but left the scope of such an inquiry vague and unlikely to satisfy those who want a thorough exploration of an intelligence finding that has shaken Washington.
Trump has repeatedly praised Putin, and said he would like to restore US-Russia relations and work with Russian counterparts against international terrorism.
Potential conflicts of interest would probably arise at Tillerson’s confirmation hearings with the Senate. So would the subject of climate change.
Exxon Mobil has operations in more than 50 countries and has partnered with Qatar’s state oil company, Qatar Petroleum, on a project to build a natural gas terminal on the Gulf of Mexico.
Tillerson has acknowledged the threat of climate change and Exxon Mobil has endorsed a carbon tax and stated its support for the Paris climate agreement.
The company is also under investigation for misleading investors about what it knew about climate change.
Greenpeace UK’s executive director John Sauven said: “So a real-life JR Ewing becomes America’s chief diplomat as Donald Trump does away with the usual intermediaries and directly outsources foreign policy to the fossil fuel industry. We spent years warning that Exxon was too close to the US government. Now they are the government.”
He added: “Rex Tillerson, while unlikely to wear his Russian friendship medal during his Senate confirmation hearings, will almost certainly use his new job to lobby for the reopening of Exxon’s Russian Arctic oil exploration. And with oil in his blood he’s unlikely to use his new office to promote solutions to climate change.”
Trump has appointed Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier, to head the Environmental Protection Agency.