According to reports this weekend from the transition team, President-elect Donald Trump has settled on Exxon Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State. Neither Trump nor his team have officially announced the decision, but they have not denied the reports, either.
The choice seems out of left field for many who thought they had a grasp on the State Department finalists. As recently as last week, insiders thought it would come down to either Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney, depending on which faction of Trump’s advisers won out. Perhaps trying to avoid an internal feud, Trump seems to have ultimately settled on an outside-the-box nomination that nonetheless comes with his own set of controversies.
Already, critics are warning of Tillerson’s close ties to Moscow. According to The New York Times, the Exxon chief has known Russian President Vladimir Putin for more than twenty years. “Russia awarded Mr. Tillerson its Order of Friendship in 2013, the year before Washington’s relationship with Moscow sank into a deep freeze over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its shadow war in eastern Ukraine,” reported the Times.
Maybe more concerning is Tillerson’s criticism of American sanctions against Russia, which have stalled a major Exxon drilling contract that could have been one of the most lucrative oil deals in history. As Secretary of State, Tillerson would have great sway in the decision to keep or eliminate those sanctions, which are in place to punish Russia for its forays into Ukraine.
On the other hand, that fits in with what we already know about Donald Trump’s foreign policy plans. Trump has not specifically said that he will lift economic sanctions against Russia, but he has expressed his desire to normalize diplomatic relations with Moscow. If there is a similar desire on the part of Russian President Vladimir Putin, those sanctions are likely history regardless of Tillerson’s biases.
Furthermore, for as much as the left is bound to cry foul about an oil executive leading the State Department, Tillerson is widely regarded as one of the greatest CEO’s in ExxonMobil’s history. He has achieved an enormous amount of private sector success, and Trump appreciates that more, perhaps, than a distinguished political career. His long career with the company has also given him decades of diplomatic practice. His role as Secretary of State will be different than his role at Exxon, but he has established relationships with foreign leaders. Those can come in handy, especially when you have a president like Trump who wants to improve relations with most of the world.
That said, Tillerson isn’t the choice until Trump says it’s so. For now, on Twitter, Trump said only: “Whether I choose him or not for State- Rex Tillerson, the Chairman & CEO of ExxonMobil, is a world class player and dealmaker. Stay tuned!’
We’ll do that.