Exxon CEO Now a Contender for Donald Trump's Secretary of State

WASHINGTON -- President-elect Donald Trump is widening the circle of candidates for secretary of state and will interview more prospects this week, transition officials said, a sign that after multiple meetings with high-profile hopefuls he still isn't sold on who he wants as the nation's top diplomat.

Though Mr. Trump's transition team said last week that the search had narrowed to four finalists, new candidates have emerged, including Rex Tillerson, chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp., one transition adviser said.

Alan Jeffers, an Exxon spokesman, declined to comment.

A final decision by Mr. Trump could come by week's end, the adviser said.

Vice President-elect Mike Pence, appearing Sunday on NBC, said the list of secretary of state candidates "might grow a little bit."

Kellyanne Conway, a senior Trump adviser, told reporters Sunday at Trump Tower in New York: "It is true that he's broadened the search...He's very fortunate to have interest among serious men and women who, all of whom need to understand that their first responsibility as secretary of state would be to implement and adhere to the president-elect's America First foreign policy, if you will, his view of the world."

Secretary of state is the most prominent missing piece in a national security team that is quickly taking shape. At a rally in Cincinnati last week, Mr. Trump announced that he has selected retired Gen. James Mattis to head the Pentagon as defense secretary. He has tapped another retired general, Michael Flynn, to serve as his n ational security adviser.

Normally an opaque process, the hunt for the next secretary of state has played out with an unusual dose of drama.

John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who is in the running for the post, arrived at Trump Tower Friday afternoon for a private meeting with the president-elect.

Another top candidate is 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who clashed bitterly with Mr. Trump during the GOP primaries this year. Last Tuesday, Mr. Trump had dinner with Mr. Romney at the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Manhattan.

Setting aside the campaign hostilities and perhaps trying to make amends with supporters of Mr. Trump, Mr. Romney told reporters afterward that he was "impressed" with the transition effort.

Other candidates for the job are former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, one of Mr. Trump's most loyal campaign supporters; U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, who also met with Mr. Trump in New York on Tuesday; and retired Gen. David Petraeus, director of the Central Intelligence Agency in the Obama administration.

Gen. Petraeus pleaded guilty in 2015 to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified material in a case involving his biographer, with whom he said he had an extramarital affair. He addressed his legal troubles in an appearance Sunday on ABC, saying, "I made a mistake. I have again acknowledged it. Folks will have to factor that in and determine whether that is indeed disqualifying or not."

One of the questions facing Mr. Trump is whether he wants a trifecta of generals as his core national security team. That would be the upshot if he were to pick Mr. Petraeus.

Coming to the presidency with no foreign policy or government experience, Mr. Trump could rely more heavily on his national security team than his predecessors.

So far he has chosen to largely freestyle his engagement with foreign leaders, rather than rely on the State Department's scripted guidance for such conversations.

Mr. Trump sent shock waves through the diplomatic community Friday when he spoke with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, the first conversation between a U.S. president-elect, or president, and leader of Taiwan since 1979. The conversation ran against Beijing's efforts to block formal U.S. relations with the island off China's coast, which it has long considered a Chinese territory and not a sovereign nation.

Choosing a secretary of state with scant foreign policy background, such as Exxon's Mr. Tillerson, could further unnerve those government officials serving in an institution that functions on strict protocols.

Mr. Trump also faces a decision on whether he wants a more hawkish foreign policy approach or one favoring diplomacy over military engagement.

During the campaign, he signaled that he wants a military posture that is less interventionist, eschewing "nation-building" and "regime-change." Yet he has also vowed to intensify military action against the Islamic State terrorist network.

"The balance of personalities in the [White House] Situation Room is really important. It's one of the few places where all the parts of government come together to shape foreign policy and presidential decision making," said Phil Carter, the director of the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security, a center-left think tank.

"They have to bring their personalities and their judgment to the table, and that's it," Mr. Carter said. "Who you have in that room and in that decision process can have a big impact."

Mr. Tillerson, 64 years old, grew up in Texas and joined Exxon in 1975. He leads a company with operations in more than 50 countries from Canada to Papua New Guinea that often exerts itself abroad with the sweeping force of a sovereign nation. He is slated to retire next year and Exxon has identified Darren Woods as a successor.

As Exxon's CEO since 2006, Mr. Tillerson could leverage existing relationships with numerous world leaders, including Russia's Vladimir Putin, with whom he has had close dealings for more than a decade .

His close ties to the company, including tens of millions of dollars of Exxon shares that will become available to Mr. Tillerson in the coming decade, could complicate his efforts to lift sanctions or intervene in trade disputes where Exxon has a financial interest. It would be almost impossible for him to recuse himself, for instance, from working with all the countries in which Exxon operates or markets its products.

Mr. Tillerson's corporate pedigree would make him an unconventional choice for chief diplomat, foreign policy analysts said.

Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was a lawyer at a top New York City firm, but not a CEO, and that George Shultz was president of Bechtel Corp., but had also served in government.

"Both are far, far, far smaller companies than Exxon Mobil," Mr. Alterman said. "I can't think of a CEO with no government experience becoming secretary of state."

As head of a company with a massive global footprint, Mr. Tillerson, though, is no stranger to foreign leaders.

As Exxon's chief executive, he has spoken against sanctions on Russia, where the company in 2012 signed a $3.2 billion deal that Mr. Putin said could eventually reach $500 billion in investments.

"We always encourage the people who are making those decisions to consider the very broad collateral damage of who are they really harming with sanctions," Mr. Tillerson said at the company's annual meeting in May 2014.

Mr. Tillerson has some of the closest CEO ties to Mr. Putin and Russia, with his work there dating back to when Mr. Putin rose to power after Boris Yeltsin's resignation. The 2012 deal gave Exxon access to prized arctic resources. Later that year, the Kremlin bestowed the country's Order of Friendship on the American businessman.

Mr. Tillerson supported a Trump rival in the Republican primaries: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. He gave the maximum $2,700 to the Bush campaign, and another $5,000 to the Right to Rise, the super PAC that backed Mr. Bush. He didn't make a contribution to Mr. Trump's campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political giving.

Bradley Olson and James V. Grimaldi contributed to this article.

Write to Carol E. Lee at carol.lee@wsj.com and Peter Nicholas at peter.nicholas@wsj.com