Donald Trump could have chosen a secretary of state steeped in academia, a thinker like Henry Kissinger with a prescribed philosophy of America’s place in the world.
Instead, he chose a dealmaker.
“Rex Tillerson’s career is the embodiment of the American dream,” Trump said in a statement announcing his secretary of state pick Tuesday morning. “Through hard work, dedication and smart deal making, Rex rose through the ranks to become CEO of ExxonMobil, one of the world’s largest and most respected companies.”
Tillerson and Trump are both dealmakers, but their style of closing deals is completely different.
Trump masqueraded as his own spokesman in the 1980s and 1990s, calling reporters under an alias and bragging about his personal and professional achievements. His Twitter account drives news cycles.
Tillerson rarely talks to the media, preferring to use the well-oiled PR machine of the world’s largest private oil company instead. He doesn’t have a Twitter account.
“You definitely cannot succeed in that company (Exxon) if you don’t have a clear vision or an adherence to a central philosophy of government,” said University of Houston professor Brandon Rottinghaus, author of an upcoming textbook on Texas politics. “They’re straight-laced and don’t reward quirky, outside-the-box thinkers. He hasn’t been allowed to be as creative as many CEOs. The days of wildcatting for oil in West Texas are no longer relevant to a global, giant company.”
Tillerson has led the oil giant for a decade amid plummeting oil prices and increasing reliance on natural gas that threatens Exxon’s market share.
During that time, Tillerson has made dozens of billion-dollar deals with foreign governments, most notably a deal with Russia with the potential to yield $97 billion in Siberian oil.
That deal was halted after the State Department issued sanctions against Russia for its meddling in Ukraine, an instance where U.S. and Exxon interests clashed.
Tillerson’s public response to the setback was markedly subdued compared with Trump.
“We do not support sanctions, generally, because we don’t find them to be effective unless they are very well implemented comprehensibly, and that’s a very hard thing to do,” Tillerson told Exxon shareholders during the 2014 annual meeting.
In 2006, Tillerson traveled to Alaska to meet with newly minted Gov. Sarah Palin, a small-town Republican elected on a wave of anti-oil sentiment. Palin reneged on the meeting, unheard of in Alaskan politics, and later referred to Tillerson as “T.Rex” in her book.
Palin had derided an Exxon-supported deal for a natural gas pipeline during her gubernatorial campaign. The pipeline has yet to be built.
Tillerson didn’t respond publicly, as Exxon prefers to work behind the scenes to change minds and pursue legislation.
Exxon lobbyists also lobbied the State Department, the federal agency Tillerson is tapped to lead, raising further questions about conflicts of interest for a man who owned $166 million in Exxon stock at the end of 2015. Tillerson will likely get a big tax break if he divests his Exxon stock before assuming office.
Politicians, policy experts and shareholders who’ve dealt with Tillerson describe him as affable and well-respected in the business world, even if his ties to Vladimir Putin cast doubt on his ability to woo Senate Republicans during upcoming confirmation hearings.
“I haven’t dealt with him on the dealmaker level before, but he’s a very gracious person,” said U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, a Democrat from Fort Worth, Texas. “I think the senators that interview him on both sides of the aisle will find him to be a friendly person and like him. ... But he’s going to have to prove he’s going to take Putin seriously.”
One oil executive who made the jump to the White House was former Vice President Dick Cheney, the most powerful vice president in modern times, who chose to work behind-the-scenes to influence policy.
“I’ve known Rex for many years both in his role as the chairman and CEO of Exxon and as a personal friend,” Cheney said in a statement praising Tillerson’s nomination. “He has the vast experience, ability and judgment to deal with the very dangerous world we find confronting us. His extensive knowledge of the global situation will be an asset in representing our nation. As the chairman and CEO of Exxon, he has operated in nations all over the world, and managed one of our largest corporations.”
Rottinghaus likened Trump and Tillerson’s contrasting leadership styles with President Ronald Reagan and his chief of staff James Baker, who eventually served as secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush. He said Reagan and Baker can serve as a model for what an ideal relationship between Trump and Tillerson would look like.
“If Reagan had Twitter, he’d probably be using it exactly like Trump has,” Rottinghaus said. “It can work if the two play off each other.”
Tillerson stands out among secretary of state nominees for his background, but not his temperament.
“State has always been run by diplomats,” Rottinghaus said. “We don’t have cowboys in that role and Tillerson, despite being from Wichita Falls (Texas), is not a cowboy in that sense. He’s not going to go off the book unless he’s told to.”
Lesley Clark and Greg Gordon contributed to this report.