Trump selects ExxonMobil’s Tillerson to lead Department of State

President-elect Donald Trump announced this week his selection of Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, one of the largest and most profitable companies in the world, to serve as Secretary of State.   Although the reaction to the pick by many pundits and policymakers has focused in large part on Tillerson’s reported relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, an objective assessment by the Senate of Tillerson’s background and experience will likely result in an at-times contentious and intense, but ultimately successful, confirmation process.

Some may view the Tillerson nomination as an outside-of-the-box decision by an unpredictable incoming Commander-in-chief, but the ExxonMobil head was highly recommended to Trump by revered GOP heavyweights within the defense and foreign policy establishment.

A Texas native and engineer who joined the then Exxon Company in 1975, Tillerson ascended the ranks within the oil and gas giant over the course of a prominent career, assuming his current position in 2006.  An Eagle Scout, he is the former National President of the Boy Scouts of America, the highest volunteer position within the organization.  Tillerson is also a past Director of the United Negro College Fund and the former Chairman of the American Petroleum Institute.  In addition to his current role at ExxonMobil, he is a member of the Business Roundtable, an honorary trustee of the Business Council for International Understanding, a nonpartisan, US-based organization focused on the expansion of international trade and commerce through engagement with foreign governments and businesses, and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a leading global think tank focused on security and foreign policy based in Washington, DC.

Although he has no public sector experience, Tillerson has helmed a company for a decade with virtually unrivaled global dealings, interests, and influence.  If ExxonMobil were a country, its annual revenue would make it the 41st largest economy in the world.  According to Robert McNally, the former Senior Director for International Energy on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, “the closest thing [the US has] to a secretary of state outside government is the CEO of Exxon.”

Tillerson’s nomination has given rise to an expected range of reactions from prominent former and current government officials – from unwavering support, to measured praise, to concern, to outright opposition.  Reportedly, former Secretaries of State James Baker (Bush 41) and Condoleezza Rice (Bush 43), and former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates (Bush 43 and Obama), all recommended Tillerson to President-elect Trump for the State Department role.  However, Tillerson’s supporters and detractors are not easily separated along party lines.

Of most concern to Senate GOP defense and foreign policy hawks, including Senator’s John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Marco Rubio (R-FL), and many Democrats, is Tillerson’s apparently close relationship with Putin.  ExxonMobil has extensive interests in Russia and the Caspian Sea region, which Tillerson oversaw directly during his tenure as Vice President of Exxon Ventures (CIS) Inc. and President of Exxon Neftegas Limited.  During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is likely to take place in early January, the subject of Tillerson’s receipt of the Order of Friendship award by Putin in 2013 is likely to be raised.  Further, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is set to hold both open and classified hearings in January focused on alleged Russian hacking of the US presidential election.  That Tillerson’s confirmation hearing will be held in close proximity to this hearing is likely to generate intense scrutiny of any perceived conflicts of interest Tillerson would have as Secretary of State based on his relationships with Putin and members of the Russian president’s inner circle.

Nevertheless, Tillerson’s list of key Senate advocates is growing.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) have expressed strong support for the selection, and perhaps even more importantly, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN), who will lead Tillerson’s confirmation hearing and was himself on the President-elect’s short list for Secretary of State, described the ExxonMobil leader as “a very impressive individual” who has “an extraordinary working knowledge of the world.”

Additionally, Tillerson has expressed public support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris [Climate] Agreement, positions that put him at odds with the President-elect’s positions on these deals.  His support for the Paris Agreement may lead certain Senate Democrats vulnerable to defeat in the upcoming 2018 election to justify support for Tillerson during his confirmation, which in turn could offset a lack of support from a small number of Senate Republicans who remain skeptical of his fitness to serve as Secretary of State.  Further, Tillerson’s reluctance to embrace increased US diplomatic engagement with Iran will likely curry favor with some of the GOP foreign policy hawks who are scrutinizing his relationship with Putin.

Melodrama aside, Senate Republicans will control a 52-seat majority during the 115th Congress, and Tillerson will require a simple majority of 51 votes for confirmation.  So although there is little margin for Republican opposition to his confirmation, Tillerson is expected to emerge from an at times tempestuous confirmation process as the next Secretary of State.

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Chris Fetzer

About Chris Fetzer

Chris Fetzer is a partner in Dentons' Public Policy and Regulation practice and leads the Defense and Security Policy team. A native Washingtonian with an established track record of securing favorable outcomes to complex, high-stakes problems at the intersection of business, law, policy, and politics, he focuses on advocacy and strategy in the defense, trade, security, energy (including oil and gas), agriculture, technology, and foreign affairs arenas.

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