US Analysis: Who is Rex Tillerson, Trump’s Prospective Secretary of State?


PHOTO: Rex Tillerson and Russian President Vladimir Putin

Michael Knigge of Deutsche Welle reports, with a contribution from EA:

If one had to find a suitable person to illustrate the word company man Rex Tillerson would be a good choice. Tillerson, a native Texan with a civil engineering degree from the University of Texas, spent his entire working life with the energy giant ExxonMobil. Tillerson joined the company as a production engineer in 1975 and over decades worked his way up through the ranks to finally become its chief executive in 2006.

Now, just as he is about to reach Exxon’s mandatory retirement age of 65 next March, a new and unlikely job — considering Tillerson’s background — beckons as America’s top diplomat. Tillerson, like his potential boss Trump, has no prior governmental or public service experience, a first for a Secretary of State in the modern era.

Personal Ties to Putin

While little is known publicly about Tillerson’s foreign policy leanings, what is known is that he possesses extensive business experience in Russia and knows President Vladimir Putin personally. Putin awarded him the Order of Friendship in 2013, an honor bestowed to only a few other Americans.

And it is precisely his Russian connections that made him an attractive candidate for Secretary of State. President-elect Trump said recently that he was impressed by Tillerson who had done “massive deals with Russia”. Trump also repeatedly stated not only his interest in improving Russian-American relations, but also his admiration for Putin.

Probably Tillerson’s biggest “deal” was Exxon’s plan to jointly drill for oil in Russia’s Arctic with the country’s state-owned oil company Rosneft. Exxon eventually had to pull out of the endeavor due to western sanctions after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in Ukraine.

“I fear Tillerson is compromised because of the possible conflict between business and diplomatic interests,” Scott Lucas, a US foreign policy scholar at the UK’s University of Birmingham, told DW via e-mail. “He leads a company which is deeply entrenched in Russia and thus – as an example – is invested in the removal of US sanctions.”

Republican Critics and Backers

If Trump was interested in a thorough review of the US-Russian relationship, including substantive issues, then perhaps there could have been a level playing field that could have included Tillerson, noted Lucas.

But since Trump had already made clear his interest in a cooperative relationship with Russia, without any apparent thought to the impact of this in key cases, “Tillerson’s appointment sounds like a reinforcement of that judgement, rather than a part of a considered process of foreign policy and diplomacy.”

Tillerson’s Russian connections have already been harshly criticized not just by Congressional Democrats, but also by key Republicans like Marco Rubio, who have publicly indicated that they might vote against confirming him.

But Tillerson also has some prominent Republican backers. According to media reports, former Secretaries of State James Baker and Condeleezza Rice support him as does former Defense Secretary Robert Gates — all of whom have business interests in Russia themselves.

Climate Change

The second foreign policy area where Tillerson has staked out a position over the years at the helm at Exxon is climate change. Unlike his predecessor at Exxon he accepts that climate change is real, but argued in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations four years ago that it was an “engineering problem”.

On the Paris climate deal, the key international agreement to combat global warming, Trump and Tillerson could be headed for conflict. While Trump has promised to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement Exxon under Tillerson’s leadership lauded the deal as an “important step forward”.

If Tillerson should be confirmed, said Lucas, the US and world would get a Secretary of State who is a “skillful businessman”, but has questionable qualifications and possible conflicts of interests. Not unlike his future boss.

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  1. 2 points: civil engineering is the easiest and most straightforward of the engineering disciplines. Not that there aren’t a lot of very clever amazing civil engineers, but Tillerson doesnt seem to hail from that category.
    Secondly, “skillful businessman” isn’t how I’d describe someone who worked his way up the slimy ladder of a shady multi-billion dollar corporation responsible for much skullduggery and the worst kinds of business practices with it’s roots in the oil cartel monopolies of the past, but hey maybe I’m also not a “skillful businessman”. Having had some insight into the behaviour of western oil executives in the former soviet union I’d say skillful crook, briber, swindler and arranger of kickbacks, payoffs and “entertainment”.
    In other words, he’d fit right in with Trump.

  2. Obama thought he could be friends with the Muslims. It didn’t work.
    Trump thinks he can be friends with the Russians. I don’t think that will work either.

  3. Tillerson is a nightmare for McCain and Graham, and their puppy….. Rubio. Tillerson means an end to the proxy war in Syria. Neocon madman McCain’s number one priority is being a thorn in Putin’s side. I don’t see Tillerson being confirmed. Interesting twist……….. Trump’s followers are very dedicated to him. If Graham goes against Trump he could very well lose his senate seat in 2018. We’re stuck with Rubio and McCain for another 6 years. Most likely McCain’s last term. Rubio better think long and hard about his future if he confronts Trump.

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