As announced Tuesday, Trump has officially nominated Rex Tillerson for the position of Secretary of State (sorry Romney).
Trump referred to Tillerson as “one of the truly great business leaders of the world,” citing his relationships with world leaders and his experience running a “global enterprise.”
Exxon Mobil may be the sixth largest company in the world – but it isn’t a country – and many are questioning Trump’s choice. On top of that is Tillerson’s close relationship with Vladimir Putin, a fact senators must take into consideration – especially after the CIA’s recent affirmation that Russia was likely involved in the US presidential election – as they decide whether to approve or reject the nomination.
Tillerson’s years of work in Russia and the Middle East seem to have created a bipartisan hesitancy, but some lawmakers have hinted they will support him now that Trump has made a decision.
“I look forward to supporting his nomination,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
Florida Senator Marco Rubio isn’t so sure. “The next secretary of state must be someone who views the world with moral clarity, is free of potential conflicts of interest, has a clear sense of America’s interests.” Along with Oklahoma Senator James Lankford, Rubio has called for a “thorough” vetting process for Tillerson.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which Rubio is a member, will have to approve Tillerson before the decision goes to the floor. Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, another member of the committee who was also a candidate for secretary, calls Tillerson an “impressive individual” with “an extraordinary working knowledge of the world.”
Tillerson was first brought to Trump’s attention by former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, whose consulting firm has Exxon as a client. Trump and Tillerson hit it off from their first meeting, each recognizing similarities in the other.
Tillerson “would bring to the position vast knowledge, experience, and success in dealing with dozens of governments and leaders in every corner of the world,” says Gates.
The oil titan also has the support of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who calls him a “patriot” who would “represent the interests and values of the United States.”
Tillerson is a Texas native. He was born in Wichita Falls and attended the University of Texas, where he earned a degree in civil engineering. He graduated in 1975 and joined Exxon that same year as a production engineer. He moved upwards through the company over the next three decades, finally reaching the position of president in 2004.
The various positions he has held within the company have allowed him to cultivate relationships with many world leaders not only in Russia but also in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.
If elected, the 64-year-old oil executive plans to focus on restoring America’s credibility on the global stage. “We must focus on strengthening our alliances, pursuing shared national interests, and enhancing the strength, security, and sovereignty of the United States,” said Tillerson.
David Mortlock, a former member of Obama’s National Security Council, points out that a Tillerson nomination would continue a trend started by Hillary Clinton:
“It ironically continues something that really started in the Clinton State Department, which is economic statecraft and the fact that US CEOs, US companies have been some of our best diplomats overseas and the US brand is an important part of US diplomacy and US representation.”
One of the first things on Tillerson’s plate, should he win Congressional approval, will be deciding whether to lift the economic sanctions that were imposed on Russia after it annexed Crimea and supported insurgents in Ukraine.
These sanctions had a serious effect on Exxon, which had just begun to explore a new find north of Russia in the Arctic’s Kara Sea. Exxon also runs a profitable operation in eastern Russia and had agreed to pursue shale oil regions in West Siberia and the Black Sea.
As secretary, Tillerson would also have to deal with climate issues. Unlike Trump, he believes climate change is a fact and supports a revenue-neutral CO2 tax of more than $20 per ton. Even so, Exxon has come under fire by environmental groups claiming that Exxon deceived the public for years by hiding its findings on man-made climate change.
Some are still angry with Exxon about the Pegasus pipeline rupture of 2013 that leaked over 130,000 gallons of oil into Arkansas.
“We’ll just make sure that every senator understands that they own this guy if they vote to confirm him,” says climate activist Bill McKibben. “That they own his policy, they own his corporate past, they own his ties to Russia. It’s all part of the big deal.”
Human rights organizations have also found fault with Tillerson, uncomfortable with the fact that Exxon does business in nations ruled by dictators or autocrats.
Meanwhile, when asked about Tillerson’s nomination, the Kremlin suggested the oil executive’s friendly attitude towards Russia will not influence policy.
“As to the allegations of whether his attitude to the Russian Federation is good or bad: being Secretary of State is very different from leading a company, even a very big one. Therefore, any, so to speak, sympathies become secondary,” explained Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.
Editor’s note: Tillerson is getting support from some who have been less than supportive of Trump, including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Condeleeza Rice. This is a serious choice.