President-elect Donald Trump toyed Sunday with the speculation that he planned to nominate ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for secretary of state, posting a message on Twitter that lauded the businessman’s skills and beckoned Americans to stay tuned for an announcement.
The trial balloon for a Tillerson nomination at State met swift resistance over the weekend amid concerns about his close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his lifelong ties to Big Oil and the president-elect adding another wealthy businessman to the Cabinet.
“Whether I choose him or not for ‘State’ — Rex Tillerson, the Chairman & CEO of ExxonMobil, is a world class player and dealmaker. Stay tuned!” tweeted Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump and his transition team insisted that a decision had not been made about who will be nominated to run the State Department, but the president-elect himself defended Mr. Tillerson’s qualifications during an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”
“He’s much more than a business executive. I mean, he’s a world-class player. He’s in charge of, I guess, the largest company in the world,” said Mr. Trump. “He’s in charge of an oil company that’s pretty much double the size of his next-nearest competitor. It’s been a company that’s been unbelievably managed.”
For the past 12 years, Mr. Tillerson has run Texas-based ExxonMobil, the most valuable publicly traded oil company in the world.
The president-elect also said Mr. Tillerson’s relationship with Mr. Putin wasn’t a liability but an asset.
“To me, a great advantage is he knows many of the players. And he knows them well. He does massive deals in Russia. He does massive deals for the company, not for himself, but the company,” said Mr. Trump.
Mr. Tillerson was definitely winning the support of the Kremlin, though, as Alexey Pushkov, the head of the Foreign Affairs committee in the lower house of Russia’s parliament, gave an unusually blunt and public endorsement.
“Selection of Tillerson is a sensation. This businessman, by definition, is a pragmatist with a wide experience of work with Russia. Trump continues to amaze,” Mr. Pushkov tweeted in Russian, according to Twitter’s translation function and minor grammar tweaks by The Washington Times.
The Russian connection further complicated a nomination of Mr. Tillerson amid reports that the CIA confirmed Mr. Putin’s government hacked Democratic emails during the presidential campaign for the specific purpose of helping Mr. Trump win.
Mr. Trump dismissed the report as “ridiculous” and blamed Democrats for pushing the story. But Congress appeared ready to open an investigation of Russian hacking in the election, and Mr. Trump will have to manage the perception promoted by Democrats that he is too cozy with Mr. Putin.
The pushback against Mr. Tillerman came from both sides of the aisle.
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the potential nomination “alarming and absurd.” Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was concerned about Mr. Tillerson’s close business relationship with Mr. Putin.
Environmental groups objected to putting a Big Oil executive in charge of foreign policy.
“Trump’s cabinet represents a who’s who of climate-deniers and fossil fuel hacks, so we’re shocked but not surprised that he chose the head of one of the world’s largest and most environmentally disastrous oil companies to be his ambassador to the world,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune.
Reince Priebus, the incoming White House chief of staff, said everybody was “jumping the shark.”
“This sort of analysis is a little premature. But as to Rex Tillerson, he is one of the preeminent business people not just in America but in the entire world,” Mr. Priebus said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“It’s amazing to me that immediately everybody is just jumping the shark on this,” he said.
Mr. Priebus brushed aside concerns raised by reports that Mr. Tillerson attended a global business expo earlier this year in Russia hosted by Mr. Putin, despite U.S. government requests not to attend.
“It might unnerve people who think that the best route for our country to go is to ignore people and to have an enemies list and adhere to that list,” he said. “I just don’t believe, and neither does the president-elect, that solving the world’s biggest problems are best done by ignoring people and having, you know, crummy relationships across the globe.”
“We just don’t believe that talking to people having relationships is a bad thing. I would venture to guess that Rex Tillerson doesn’t agree with that either,” said Mr. Priebus.
Mr. Trump met Saturday with Mr. Tillerson for a second interview about the State Department post. The meetings coincided with an NBC report that Mr. Trump had decided on Mr. Tillerson for the job.
Other candidates interviewed by Mr. Trump include 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John R. Bolton, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker and former CIA director David H. Petraeus.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani had been considered for the State Department gig but withdrew himself from consideration Thursday.