Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Trump Nominates Exxon Chief Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State

President-elect Donald Trump announced his nomination for Secretary of State Tuesday, picking ExxonMobil chairman and chief executive officer Rex Tillerson to be the nation’s top diplomat.

It’s the latest in a series of unconventional choices Trump has made in filling out his cabinet. With no diplomatic experience and a relationship with Russia that many have already criticized as too cozy, Tillerson will likely face tough questioning during the confirmation process in the U.S. Senate.

Long career in oil industry

Tillerson, 64, trained as a civil engineer, joined Exxon right after his graduation from the University of Texas at Austin and moved up through the corporate ranks over the next four decades. He was due to leave the company next year when he reached its mandatory retirement age of 65.

He is known for his international deal-making skills and is said to have good relations with a number of heads of state around the globe, which would be an important asset for the top U.S. diplomat.

ExxonMobil is the fifth largest corporation in the world, by market capitalization. Although the company’s earnings were reduced somewhat by the past year’s slump in world oil prices, it is still extremely profitable. Tillerson, whose compensation is based in part on corporate performance, earned $27 million last year, down from a high of $40 million in 2012.

Confirmation could be challenging

Tillerson will have to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and likely faces a contentious confirmation process. Based on the current composition of the Senate, if all Democrats vote in unison and more than two Republicans join them, the next president’s choice would be rejected.

As reports emerged Saturday that Trump had settled on the oil executive, several senators – including some Republicans – voiced concerns about Tillerson’s ties to Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013 awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship to Tillerson, who has guided huge ExxonMobil deals with Russian companies for exploration and production of oil and gas and has opposed U.S. sanctions on Moscow.

The Kremlin on Monday praised Tillerson, calling him “highly professional.”

David Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that Tillerson, who is a CSIS board member, “has had more interactive time with Vladimir Putin than probably any other American with the exception of Henry Kissinger.”

Speaking earlier this year at the University of Texas, Tillerson acknowledged, “I have a very close relationship” with Putin, having known the Russian leader for more than 15 years.

That relationship “is a matter of concern,” Senator John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Sunday.

Other Republican senators, including Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, also indicated they were troubled by Tillerson’s dealings with Russia.

Democratic Senator Robert Menendez said that with Tillerson as the top U.S. diplomat, “the Trump administration would be guaranteeing Russia has a willing accomplice in the President’s Cabinet guiding our nation’s foreign policy.”

Business savvy vs. diplomatic experience

While some critics questioned Tillerson’s qualifications to serve as a diplomat, Trump said in an interview Sunday that Tillerson’s global business dealings made him “a world-class player.”

“He knows many of the players, and he knows them well,” Trump said.

Professor Henry Hale, a Eurasia specialist at George Washington University told VOA that “doing business abroad is not the same thing as conducting the nation’s business abroad.” But he also noted that “all secretaries of state learn on the job to some degree.”

Tillerson’s selection is in line with Trump’s preference for military and business leaders in his Cabinet.

“Tillerson’s comfort with and understanding of organizational formality might equip him uniquely to deal with the Foggy Bottom establishment, which has cultural rigidities of its own,” said Bob Tippee, editor of Oil & Gas Journal. “I find this really interesting and potentially transformative.”

Tillerson’s career has given him numerous skills necessary for a competent top diplomat, “absorbing complex political analysis, evaluating foreign leaders, attending ceremonial events, and negotiating with friends and adversaries,” according to Steve Coll, author of a book about ExxonMobil called “Private Empire.”

The company, which eschews interference in the 50 countries in which it operates, sees itself “as an independent, transnational corporate sovereign in the world, a power independent of the American government, one devoted firmly to shareholder interests and possessed of its own foreign policy,” writes Coll in the latest online edition of the New Yorker magazine.

The energy giant’s foreign policy sometimes has more impact in countries than does the State Department, says Coll, describing ExxonMobil executives as regarding U.S. diplomats with disdain, if not contempt, for a perceived bias against oil and their inability to understand sensitive and complex oil deal negotiations.

Environment also an issue

Environmental concerns are another potential trouble spot for Tillerson’s confirmation. Exxon Mobil is under fire in New York and Massachusetts, accused of suppressing internal research showing that it knew about the impact of fossil fuels on climate change. Attorneys general in both states have subpoenaed the company, charging that it violated federal requirements by not disclosing the information to its investors and to the public.

Tillerson himself has acknowledged climate change as a man-made problem and made some concessions to reduce his company’s effect on the environment, but he has persisted in promoting the use of oil and natural gas, saying that “energy is the lifeblood to economic growth.”

On climate change matters, “Tillerson or any other nominee will do Trump’s bidding,” said Tippee, who noted Tillerson’s selection “would further inflame climate activists, which might be the point.”

Democrat Ed Markey, a clean energy advocate, predicted the Trump administration will face “a major battle if Tillerson is nominated,” asserting “we cannot allow oil to replace diplomacy as the currency of the U.S. Department of State.”

Supported Jeb Bush

The Exxon chief has contributed to many Republican political campaigns in the past, but biographers say he is not known to have financially supported Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, contributing instead to the ultimately unsuccessful campaign by Jeb Bush, a brother of former president George W. Bush.

Tillerson has voiced positions on some domestic issues in the past that diverge from stands taken by Trump, but he has avoided speaking out on non-business topics.

VOA’s Steven Herman and Marissa Melton contributed to this report

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