Donald Trump defended his choice of Rex Tillerson as secretary of State on Tuesday, brushing off concerns of both Democrats and Republicans that the Exxon Mobil chief executive is too close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Rex is friendly with many of the leaders in the world that we don’t get along with, and some people don’t like that,” the president-elect told supporters at a “thank you” rally in West Allis, Wis.
“They don’t want him to be friendly. That’s why I’m doing the deal with Rex – because I like what this is all about.”
Trump praised Tillerson for striking “some of the greatest deals ever made in the oil industry” and said he would be joining “one of the great Cabinets – certainly the Cabinet with the highest IQ.”
Tillerson’s ties to Putin have alarmed critics at a time when Congress has opened a bipartisan probe of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election. Trump has mocked the Central Intelligence Agency for concluding that Russia hacked Democratic leaders’ emails and made them public to help swing the election to Trump.
At Exxon Mobil, Tillerson has lobbied to lift sanctions that the U.S. imposed on Russia for its occupation of Crimea and its military intervention in Ukraine. The sanctions have blocked giant Exxon Mobil projects in Russia.
Trump pointed to support for Tillerson from Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and other Republican luminaries. Without mentioning the Iraq war that they prosecuted under President George W. Bush, he said Tillerson would help reverse “years of foreign policy blunders and disasters.”
Appearing onstage shortly before Trump was House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). When Trump, who tussled with Ryan during the campaign, mentioned the speaker, the crowd booed.
“Honestly, he’s like a fine wine,” Trump told the audience once the jeers subsided. “Every day goes by, I get to appreciate his genius more and more. Now, if he ever goes against me, I’m not going to say that, OK?”
Trump said he and Ryan had “some amazing things in store,” such as tax cuts, the repeal of Obamacare and construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We’re going to work on the wall, Paul,” Trump said to a burst of applause.
“It’s going to be your turn very soon,” Trump said with a glance toward Walker. “You and Pence are going to have to fight it out.”