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Trump Announces He's Picked Rex Tillerson As Secretary Of State


This was supposed to be a week of big announcements from President-elect Donald Trump, and this morning, we have two new Cabinet picks to report on. Trump is reportedly preparing to tap former Texas Governor Rick Perry as his secretary of energy, though NPR has not independently confirmed that yet. Earlier this morning, Trump's team announced that he has chosen Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil, to be secretary of state. And let's bring in NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson to talk about this. Morning, Mara.


GREENE: So we're just getting word of these reports that Rick Perry is secretary of energy, former Texas governor, once presidential hopeful himself. What do you make of this?

LIASSON: Well, he's from an oil-and-gas state. He sits on some energy company boards. However, he used to be a real stark, strong critic of Donald Trump. He called him a barking carnival act and a cancer on conservatism. But when it comes...

GREENE: That's not holding back.

LIASSON: (Laughter) No. But when - later he endorsed him and campaigned very enthusiastically for him. But what he's most famous for, when it comes to the Department of Energy, was this famous clip from a 2012 - 2011 debate when he was running for the Republican presidential nomination for the 2012 election. And here's what he said about what he would do to reform government if he was president.


RICK PERRY: It's three agencies of government, when I get there, that are gone - commerce, education and the - what's the third one there? Let's see.


LIASSON: That's known as the oops moment. That third one was the Department of Energy. Now he's going to run it, which he...

GREENE: Which he's theoretically going to be leading.

LIASSON: ...Wanted to get rid of. Yes, he wanted to get rid of it. Now he's going to lead it. And the Department of Energy is more than just about oil and gas. It also manages the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile and runs programs on nuclear nonproliferation and counterterrorism. And the last energy secretary, the current energy secretary, is a nuclear physicist. So it's a lot more than just fossil fuels...

GREENE: OK, so...

LIASSON: ...And nuclear energy.

GREENE: ...Sitting on some boards of companies, you say, and that brings up the next pick, which is Trump choosing Rex Tillerson to lead the State Department. He certainly knows about companies. He's ExxonMobil's CEO. But what - let's look at this broadly, Mara. What happened to Mitt Romney? A very different choice.

LIASSON: Well, Mitt Romney would have been a very different choice. He's kind of the path not taken. He famously said that Russia was the United States number one geopolitical foe. Rex Tillerson seems to be more in line with Donald Trump's approach to Russia. He advocated a much friendlier role to Russia during the campaign. He has been consistently complimentary of Vladimir Putin. Several of his advisers have ties to the Putin government, and Russian diplomats said they were in touch with the Trump campaign all throughout the election, although the Trump campaign has denied that. And Donald Trump famously called on Vladimir Putin to hack into Hillary Clinton's emails.

So this could be a reset - a more robust reset - towards Russia than anything ever tried by the Obama administration because Rex Tillerson is known as the friendliest CEO to Vladimir Putin. He got the Russian award of friendship. He does a lot of deals in Russia, a lot of oil and gas deals. So this could represent a big split between Donald Trump and the majority of Republicans and national security professionals who feel that Russian aggression in Europe and elsewhere needs to be checked, not accommodated.

GREENE: OK. So people who are worried about that when it comes to both Donald Trump and what he has said about Vladimir Putin and also Tillerson's ties to Russia, there will be a confirmation hearing. I would imagine this is a time when a lot of senators, including Republicans, could bring some of that up.

LIASSON: Yes, and I think they will, although the Trump administration-in-waiting has lined up a lot of establishment figures to vouch for Tillerson, including Bob Gates, Condoleezza Rice, who run a consulting company where ExxonMobil is one of their clients, and Dick Cheney and Jim Baker. But there has been pushback from Republican senators, from Lindsey Graham...


LIASSON: ...And even from Marco Rubio.

GREENE: If you have to get that, Mara, it's OK.

LIASSON: Yeah, thank you very much - sorry about that - from Marco Rubio who actually said today he thinks the secretary of state needs to have moral clarity and no conflicts of interest and he has serious concerns about Tillerson. So this - these hearings for Tillerson, or the announcement of Tillerson, come just as Congress is gearing up to look into Russian hacking of political operatives during the election, something that Donald Trump - a conclusion widely held by the intelligence community but one that Donald Trump has adamantly rejected. He says I don't believe Russia hacked. So you're going to have these two forces coming together, Donald Trump's view of Russia, his nomination of Tillerson and congressional skepticism.

GREENE: And we should just say briefly one event that we are not expecting this week that we were expecting at one point was Trump having a press conference to talk about how he's going to avoid conflicts of interest with his businesses when he's president.

LIASSON: Nope. He's not going to do it. He says he'll do it in January. But he says he's not divesting. His sons will manage the business, and he won't do any new deals while he's president.

GREENE: OK. That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks a lot.

LIASSON: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.