NEW YORK - Exxon Mobil Corporation Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson has emerged as US president Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of state, a move that would hand top diplomatic powers to a man whose ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin go back almost two decades.

Tillerson had his second interview with Trump Saturday at Trump Tower in New York and has emerged as the favourite in the long-running competition to lead the State Department, according to media reports.

"In his case, he's much more than a business executive," Trump said in an interview to be broadcast on Fox News Sunday. "I mean, he's a world-class player."

In the excerpt released by Fox News, Trump stopped short of confirming Tillerson as his pick, but praised the 64-year-old executive. "He's in charge of an oil company that's pretty much double the size of his next nearest competitor. It’s been a company that's been unbelievably managed," he said. "To me a big advantage is that he knows many the players, and he knows them well. He does massive deals in Russia. He does massive deals — not for himself, but for the company."

Those deals in Russia, according to diplomatic observers, are likely to draw the most scrutiny, especially given his personal relationship with the president of Russia, who awarded him the Order of Friendship, the top Russian honour for a foreign citizen, in 2013. “I have obviously concerns of reports of his relationship with Vladimir Putin, who is a thug and a murderer," Senator John McCain, a senior Republican leader, told CNN. "We will have hearings on that issue and other issues concerning him will be examined. That’s the time to make up your mind as to whether to vote yes or no.”

Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, called the choice “alarming and absurd” in a statement on Saturday.

“With Rex Tillerson as our Secretary of State, the Trump administration would be guaranteeing Russia has a willing accomplice in the President’s Cabinet guiding our nation’s foreign policy,” Menendez said. News of Tillerson's emergence came as government officials accuse the Russian government of seeking to intervene in the recent U.S. election, including hacks of Democratic officials' e-mails — all in an effort to boost Trump's chances.

Tillerson, who hits Exxon’s mandatory retirement age of 65 in March, would be the first oil executive and only the second Texan to lead the State Department. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee for president and a critic of Trump during this year’s campaign, remains on the short list of candidates, Media reports said.

Kellyanne Conway, a top Trump adviser, said Friday on Fox News that the list currently includes, in addition to Tillerson and Romney, Alan Mulally, the former CEO of Ford Motor Co., former CIA Director David Petraeus, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, and Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican.

NBC reported Saturday that Bolton may be tapped as Tillerson’s deputy. Under Tillerson’s leadership, Russia became Exxon’s single biggest exploration theater as the company amassed drilling rights across tens of millions of acres, dwarfing its holdings in its home country, formerly its largest drilling opportunity, according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

When the Putin regime forced Royal Dutch Shell Plc and other foreign investors to cede control of a massive gas export project on Sakhalin Island in 2007, Exxon’s holdings in the same region remained intact and untouched by the government, it was pointed out in media reports.

Tillerson steered Exxon’s historic 2011 deal with Kremlin-controlled oil explorer Rosneft that gave the U.S. driller access to Russia’s vast Arctic, deepwater and shale-oil deposits. Shortly after the venture discovered a billion-barrel crude field in the Kara Sea, the U.S. and European Union imposed sanctions to punish Russia for supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine and for the annexation of Crimea. The sanctions didn’t force Exxon to surrender drilling rights in Russia, but required that it and all other U.S. and EU companies halt their most ambitious projects.

Tillerson would probably face sSenator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, called the choice “alarming and absurd” in a statement on Saturday.“With Rex Tillerson as our Secretary of State, the Trump administration would be guaranteeing Russia has a willing accomplice in the President’s Cabinet guiding our nation’s foreign policy,” Menendez said.tiff opposition from Democratic and some Republican senators for both his foreign business ventures and an escalating legal tussle over how much Exxon knew about climate change and when.