James Baker says he's "not worried" about Tillerson's relationship with Putin

James Baker on Rex Tillerson

Former Secretary of State James Baker reflected Wednesday on Rex Tillerson’s potential effectiveness as the nation’s top diplomat, just days after Donald Trump announced his Cabinet pick. 

“He’s an excellent choice to be secretary of state and he has the opportunity to be an extraordinarily effective one,” Baker, who is a longtime friend of the Exxon Mobil executive from Texas, said in a  “CBS This Morning” interview. (The two, according to Baker, “hunt elk” together.) Baker, who worked in President George H.W. Bush’s administration, cited Tillerson’s management and negotiating skills as qualifications for the job.

When pressed about Baker’s close business ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin -- something even top members of the Republican party are wary of -- Baker dismissed the concerns. 

“I’m not worried about that, Charlie,” he said. “In getting close to Vladimir Putin, he was doing what he should have done for the shareholders of ExxonMobil and that was make good deals, good agreements with foreign leaders, whether they were authoritarian or not.”

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“Now he’s gonna be sitting in the secretary of state’s chair... and I guarantee you he’s gonna have a different outlook,” Baker went on. “He’s going to be looking at formulating and implementing American foreign policy... in the national interest of this country.”

Asked if there was any difference between arranging a corporate deal with Russia and working through a diplomatic agreement, Baker said, “I don’t think there’s a heck of a lot of difference.”

“You know what your country’s national interest is and what our principles and values are and you cut a deal,” he explained. “You don’t give those away just because you have a relationship with the other side of the table.”

Baker, who is a partner in a law firm that helps represent ExxonMobil and some Russian gas companies, said he has never personally worked on anything directly involving Tillerson. Despite that, Baker said he gave him “really high marks” when Mr. Trump’s team asked his opinion on the Tillerson nomination. The former secretary of state further denied reports that he had personally pushed for his friend’s nomination, saying there were two other people under consideration by the Trump team that he believed would do well in the position: Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker and former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. 

When asked about Mr. Trump’s other Cabinet nominations, Baker said he thought the president-elect was “appointing some extraordinarily capable people.” 

The former secretary of state, whose work has included various environmental initiatives like preventing elephant poaching for ivory, also defended Tillerson and his stance on climate change, saying the ExxonMobil executive was one of the first corporate leaders in the U.S. to acknowledge the detrimental effects of global warming.