President-elect Donald Trump is expected to name Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil who has worked extensively around the globe and built relationships with such leaders as Russian President Vladimir Putin, as his secretary of state, three people close to the transition team told the Washington Post on Saturday.
Tillerson's nomination could face intense scrutiny in the Senate considering his years of work in Russia on behalf of the multinational petroleum company and his close ties to Putin. Already, two leading Republican hawks, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have voiced concerns about Tillerson serving as the nation's top diplomat.
Trump spokesman Jason Miller said Saturday that there would be no official announcement until this coming week "at the earliest."
But three officials briefed on Trump's deliberations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, told the Post that the pick would be Tillerson barring a late shift in Trump's thinking. NBC News first reported that Trump has settled on Tillerson.
Trump spent a month deliberating over the secretary of state position and interviewed an array of candidates, including Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee and onetime critic who was the face of the Republican resistance to Trump's candidacy.
The president-elect settled on Tillerson because he projects gravitas, is regarded as a skillful manager and personally knows many foreign heads of state through his dealings on behalf of the energy giant, people close to Trump said.
In an excerpt of an interview with Fox News, which will be aired in full today, Trump praised Tillerson, though did not reveal his decision.
"He's much more than a business executive; he's a world-class player," Trump said. "He knows many of the players, and he knows them well. He does massive deals in Russia — for the company, not for himself."
Tillerson's nomination would fit the pattern of other Trump appointments, installing a wealthy business leader with little experience in policymaking. But Tillerson, 64, has spent much of his career dealing with the complexities of one of the world's biggest enterprises, spanning six continents and about six dozen nations.
The company's deep ties to Russia would potentially serve Tillerson well given Trump's desire to repair relations with the Kremlin. But Tillerson's close relationship with Putin could also become a flashpoint during confirmation hearings.
"Few corporate titans are closer to Putin than Tillerson," said Jason Bordoff, founder of Columbia University's center for global energy.
During the 1990s, Tillerson oversaw an Exxon project on Russia's Sakhalin island and developed a working relationship with Putin. In 2011, the company signed an agreement with the state-controlled oil company, Rosneft, to work jointly on oil exploration and development in the Arctic and Siberia.
Two years later, the Kremlin awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship, honoring foreigners.
"I don't know the man much at all, but let's put it this way: If you received an award from the Kremlin, an order of friendship, then we're gonna have some talkin'," Graham said. "We'll have some questions. I don't want to prejudge the guy, but that's a bit unnerving."
Exxon discovered oil in a well it drilled in the Kara Sea, but the joint partnership was put on ice after Russian intervention in Ukraine and annexation of the Crimea led to international economic sanctions. As secretary of state, Tillerson, who has been critical of the sanctions, would be in a position to argue for an easing them, which could allow Exxon to resume operations.
"Russia is critical for Exxon," said Fadel Gheit, oil analyst for Oppenheimer & Co. "Not only for how much production it has there, but the potential growth is huge." He said once sanctions are lifted, "Exxon will go back to develop the Arctic business at a rapid pace."
As secretary of state, which takes the lead in international climate talks, the oil industry veteran could also play a role in unwinding U.S. commitments under the recent Paris accord.
"The closest thing we have to a secretary of state outside government is the CEO of Exxon," said Robert McNally, president of the consulting firm Rapidan Group and a director for energy at President George W. Bush's national security council. Because ExxonMobil invests in huge, long-term projects, it is concerned "by nature with enduring interests, vulnerabilities and opportunities," McNally said.
His selection would end one of the most high-profile contests for a top Cabinet post, whose losing candidates would include former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Romney and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.