Diplomacy in the world of Donald Trump is going to be directed by the CEO of Exxon Mobil, one of the world’s largest oil companies, if he’s confirmed by the Senate.
The president-elect chose Rex Tillerson, a private-sector Texan with no formal diplomatic experience, to be secretary of state.
Despite dining with 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney and courting former Gen. David Petraeus for the nation’s top diplomatic post, Trump chose Tillerson, who has served as Exxon CEO since 2006 and worked for the oil giant for over four decades.
Tillerson, who met with Trump on Saturday morning in New York, would face confirmation hearings in the Senate.
The CEO, who made $27.3 million in salary last year, has some policy differences with the president-elect.
Tillerson believes in man-made climate change and supports the Paris climate agreement, but Trump has indicated he will pull out of the agreement when he assumes the presidency.
Exxon has been criticized for denying climate change in public while privately preparing its oil infrastructure for rising sea levels during the 1980s and 1990s, although the company called for a carbon tax starting in 2009.
In 2012, Tillerson told the Council on Foreign Relations that the U.S. should focus on the reliability of energy over the potential concerns of foreign countries producing energy consumed by Americans.
“I think what the U.S. policy and what's in the best interest of American consumers has been and should be – is securing access to energy in a reliable, relatively affordable way,” Tillerson said. “And if we're able to do that, where it comes from should be of little consequence to us.”
But Tillerson has close ties with Russia and Vladimir Putin that go back to the 1990s, when Tillerson ran Exxon’s Russian operations. In 2013, Putin awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship, one of Russia’s highest honors for foreigners.
“Anything Trump and Exxon do is going to be controversial,” said Jim Krane, an expert on energy geopolitics at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “If Trump really wanted to pursue his campaign goals of bettering U.S. relations with Russia, Tillerson would be someone who could probably carry that out. He’s on pretty good terms with Russia.”
Tillerson’s lack of formal diplomatic or political experience would be unprecedented for a secretary of state in modern times. Private-sector leaders like Goldman Sachs CEO Hank Paulson have made the jump into Cabinet positions, but the role of secretary of state has gone to former politicians, diplomats or academics.
And Tillerson’s potential nomination raises the same conflict of interest questions that have dogged his potential boss since winning the election: How could Tillerson be objective on U.S. foreign policy just months removed from leading an entity with significantly different interests?
“As secretary of state, you’ll have to look at Exxon’s global holdings around the world in myriad countries,” Krane said. “On the one hand America would benefit with someone who’s got those relationships, but there would certainly be some conflict-of-interest question marks. Does he divest or leave his job?”
Tillerson owns $151 million in Exxon shares, according to securities filings, a financial windfall that could be impacted if sanctions against Russia are lifted.
“We’ve seen this before (with) Dick Cheney,” Krane said. “If you remember there were questions surrounding Dick Cheney as vice president and overseeing U.S. energy policy.”
In recent days, former New York mayor and Trump Cabinet candidate Rudy Giuliani withdrew his name from consideration for secretary of state, clearing a major obstacle for Tillerson to assume the job.
If Tillerson is nominated he would be fourth in the presidential line of succession.