Donald Trump makes case for ExxonMobil chief as US secretary of state
Rex Tillerson, dubbed ‘T Rex’ by Sarah Palin, has €26m salary and strong links to Russia
Rex Tillerson at the World Gas Conference in Paris last year. Photograph: Eric Piermont/AFP/Getty
Before he has even confirmed Rex Tillerson, chief executive of oil and gas giant ExxonMobil, as his choice for secretary of state, US president-elect Donald Trump has been explaining why he wants him in the job, appearing to end weeks of speculation about the most important post in his “America first” cabinet.
In the 64-year-old oil industry veteran, Trump sees a likeness: Tillerson has established a reputation as a top negotiator with some of the world’s most powerful people, including Russian president Vladimir Putin.
While the Texas native has no diplomatic experience, Trump clearly views the globetrotting Tillerson as the right man to broker a new US detente with Putin, of whom the next president has spoken admiringly. Tillerson is said to have a close personal relationship with Putin. He is the closest thing the American business world – the one Trump knows best – has to its own secretary of state.
Trump told Fox News Sunday that the ExxonMobil lifer, whom he met at his Trump Tower offices in New York on Saturday, was “much more than a business executive”.
“He’s a world-class player,” he said. “He’s in charge of an oil company that’s pretty much double the size of its nearest competitor. It’s been a company that has been unbelievably managed. And, to me, a great advantage is he knows many of the players, and he knows them well.”
Sounding a little more equivocal on Sunday morning about the appointment to a role linked to at least seven others, Trump tweeted: “Whether I choose him or not for ‘State’, Rex Tillerson, the chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, is a world class player and dealmaker. Stay tuned!”
As chief executive of the world’s second-biggest company (after Apple) by market value – worth $370 billion (€350 billion) – Tillerson runs operations in more than 50 countries and has inked deals with tough negotiators. He signed a deal with Rosneft, Russia’s largest state-owned oil company, for joint oil and gas exploration. The two companies have 10 joint venture projects in Russia.
Tillerson started out at Exxon working as a production engineer in oilfields in 1975. He has worked for no other company and has led Exxon since 2006. A former president of the Boy Scouts of America, the Texan created a merit-badge system at Exxon, where employees earn coins for skills such as teamwork.
Nicknamed “T Rex” by the former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, Tillerson took an 18 per cent pay cut this year to $27.3 million (€26 million) – about 500 times the average US household income – as low petroleum prices ate into profits. Most of his Exxon shares cannot be sold straight away and more will vest over the coming decade, which could raise potential conflict-of-interest issues with his appointment.
While Tillerson’s connections with Russia make him, in Trump’s eyes, an ideal choice to be the top US diplomat, other Republicans are not so sure. Senator John McCain of Arizona, a foreign-policy hawk who has described Putin as a “thug, bully and murderer”, has said he is worried about Tillerson’s connections with the Kremlin. In 2013 Putin presented the Exxon chief executive with the Order of Friendship, one of Russia’s highest civilian honours.
US-imposed economic sanctions, imposed because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, have hurt Exxon’s business in Russia, so all eyes will be on whether a Tillerson-controlled State Department might seek to ease up on these penalties, under Trump’s direction, in a thawing of relations with Moscow.
“I don’t know what Mr Tillerson’s relationship with Vladimir Putin was, but I’ll tell you it’s a matter of concern to me,” McCain said.
Mark Salter, a former aide to the Republican senator, was more unambiguous.