Trump's Tillerson pick sparks concerns from some key GOP senators

Russian President, Vladimir Putin (R) and Rex Tillerson (L), Chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil during a signing ceremony for an arctic oil exploration deal between Exxon Mobil and Rosneft on August, 30, 2011 in Sochi, Russia.
Sasha Mordovets | Getty Images

Some Senate Republican hawks on Russia have expressed concerns about Donald Trump's secretary of State pick, setting up a potentially messy nomination process early in the president-elect's term.

Trump announced Tuesday morning that he plans to nominate Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his top diplomat. Trump's transition team praised Tillerson, who has no government experience, as an accomplished business leader and international dealmaker, saying he "will be a forceful and clear-eyed advocate for America's vital national interests."

Some notable GOP senators, however, have questioned the choice, citing Tillerson's potential for conflicts of interest and ties to Russia. Their resistance sets up the potential for a more bruising confirmation process, even in a Senate that will include 52 Republicans.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said he had "serious concerns" about Tillerson despite his business record.

"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 said in a statement. "I look forward to learning more about his record and his views."

Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, two of the GOP's most outspoken senators on Russia, also have their doubts. McCain and Graham were among the first Republicans to support calls for a bipartisan investigation into Russia's influence on the presidential election amid reports about suspected political hacking from Moscow.

Still, other key Senate Republicans backed the Tillerson choice. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he looks forward to supporting the nomination. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, head of the foreign relations committee, called Tillerson "impressive."

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who count Exxon Mobil as a consulting client, also endorsed the pick.

As head of Exxon, Tillerson worked closely with Russia on energy projects. Russian President Vladimir Putin gave him a state honor in 2013, citing his work "strengthening cooperation in the energy sector."

McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, told Reuters that he has "concerns" about the pick.

"It's very well-known that he has a very close relationship with Vladimir Putin," McCain said.

Graham told The Washington Post that he did not want "to prejudge the guy" but said the award he received from Putin is "a bit unnerving."

Tillerson's more than 2.5 million shares in Exxon Mobil could also benefit from the Trump administration lifting sanctions imposed after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Exxon had to abandon a project in the Arctic with Russia's Rosneft because of the penalties. Tillerson may be required to divest the stake to serve, though.

Trump's transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the senators' concerns about Tillerson. However, it did say in a statement announcing the pick that Tillerson's "relationships with leaders all over the world are second to none."

Tillerson would need a majority of votes in the Senate to get confirmed.