WASHINGTON – In selecting Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state, President-elect Donald Trump is making the same bet he asked voters to make on him: that a track record of business accomplishment will translate into success in government.
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Indeed, Trump, the first billionaire businessman to win the White House, is broadly testing that proposition across his administration. He's tapped fast food executive Andy Puzder to lead the Labor Department, billionaire investor Wilbur Ross for Commerce, financier Steven Mnuchin as Treasury secretary and Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn as his top economic adviser.
But he's taking perhaps his biggest chance on Tillerson, pulling an executive from the rough-and-tumble world of oil production into the delicate arena of international diplomacy. If confirmed by the Senate — and his deep ties to Russia make that no sure thing — Tillerson will be at the center of discussions over the Syrian civil war, the intractable pursuit of peace in the Middle East, and potential conflicts with China, given Trump's early questioning of longstanding U.S. policy toward Beijing.
To Trump, the deals Tillerson has struck around the world for Exxon, and the relationships he has built doing so, are ample preparation for the challenges he would face as the nation's top diplomat. While Tillerson's ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin are drawing scrutiny on Capitol Hill, Trump has had good things to say about Putin, too, and Tillerson's connection doesn't appear to have given him any pause.
"Rex knows how to manage a global enterprise, which is crucial to running a successful State Department, and his relationships with leaders all over the world are second to none," Trump said Tuesday.
He's been making a similar case about himself all year as he sought to persuade voters that a real estate mogul and political novice had the skills to serve as president. He spent little time trying to show voters that his skills extended beyond the boardroom. Instead, he argued that experience was plenty.
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As Trump set about putting his administration together, people close to him say he was quickly drawn to the idea of elite business leaders filling the Cabinet, along with those who have had success in areas outside of politics. He's tapped three retired generals for top jobs: James Mattis to head the Pentagon, John Kelly for the Department of Homeland Security and Michael Flynn as his national security adviser.
While business leaders have served in Cabinet posts under both Republican and Democratic presidents, the scope of private sector influence in Trump's burgeoning team is a stark contrast to modern predecessors. Most of President Barack Obama's Cabinet secretaries had public sector backgrounds, though Interior Secretary Sally Jewell served as CEO of the retail company REI and Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald is the retired CEO of Procter & Gamble.
Some of Trump's picks have come from a more traditional mold. Among them will be former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has been asked by Trump to lead the Energy Department, according to people with knowledge of the decision. Trump has also selected a handful of congressional lawmakers for other top jobs.
But Trump is said to have been particularly intrigued by the prospect of breaking the mold with his choice for secretary of state, one of the most powerful and prominent positions and one that often goes to a diplomatic veteran.
Tillerson came to his attention several years ago when he beat back a motion supported by the Rockefellers — Exxon's founding family — that would have split the chairman and chief executive position into two different jobs. The president-elect was drawn to Tillerson's confidence and Texas swagger, according to people with knowledge of the decision.
"Rex Tillerson is a very Trumpian-inspired pick because it's somebody who, like Donald Trump, has a career outside of politics, and he's somebody who is accustomed to making big deals and translating that into big impact," said Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump's senior advisers.
But for some longtime foreign policy hands, Tillerson is an uncomfortable fit.
"Rex Tillerson has done a fantastic job for Exxon Mobil shareholders," said Michael McFaul, Obama's former ambassador to Russia. "I am not sure those same skills qualify him to be secretary of state."
A native of Wichita Falls, Texas, Tillerson came to Exxon Mobil Corp. as a production engineer straight out of the University of Texas in 1975 and never left. Groomed for an executive position, he has held posts in the company's central U.S., Yemen and Russia 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.
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