Donald Trump’s oilman diplomat raises hackles over pipeline to Putin

Choice of Exxon boss as secretary of state alarms Republican senators over Russia ties

Exxon Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson may have no diplomatic experience to speak of but US president-elect Donald Trump does not see it that way.

"His tenacity, broad experience and deep understanding of geopolitics make him an excellent choice for secretary of state," Trump said, confirming his nomination after weeks of speculation around a job linked to former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, among others.

Tillerson's experience of forging business deals with foreign countries, including Russia, dovetails with Trump's plan to smooth relations with the Kremlin. But the Texas oilman's long-time close relations with Moscow and his own financial interests in the only company he has ever worked for raise serious questions if he is to become the highest-ranking US diplomat. Of all Trump's cabinet picks, Tillerson's will likely be the testiest of confirmation hearings when he comes before the US senate for public vetting.

While running the largest US oil company with a market value of $370 billion (€350 billion), the 64-year-oil former engineer received a friendship award from Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2013.


Exxon ladder

Tillerson climbed the Exxon ladder while managing the company's business in Russia. It was one of the reasons why he was promoted to be chief executive in 2006. Five years ago he agreed a partnership with Rosneft, the Russian state-owned oil company, to drill for oil in the Arctic, the Black Sea and Siberia.

The deal was so lucrative that the value of Rosneft soared by $7 billion in just five days, boasted its chairman Igor Sechin, then Russia's deputy prime minister. Putin attended the 2011 signing ceremony.

Republicans John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio – hardliners on Russia – have expressed concern about Tillerson's ties, particularly in light of Kremlin-backed hackers allegedly helping to tip the election in Trump's favour.

US sanctions imposed after the Kremlin annexed Crimea and sent tanks into eastern Ukraine in 2014 halted Exxon drilling in Russia, freezing tens of billions in profits from oil-rich fields in the country.

Should Trump, an admirer of Putin and an advocate for normalised relations with Russia, lift these sanctions, Tillerson would directly benefit. He owned $218 million in Exxon shares this year and had a $70 million company pension. This blurs the line between his own interests and those of his country.

Climate-change sceptic

Shortly after the Exxon man's nomination was announced, the Trump transition team leaked word that he planned to name former Texas governor Rick Perry as energy secretary. Perry, a climate-change sceptic who ran the country's biggest energy-producing state for almost 15 years, proposed abolishing the department that Trump wants him to run in his ill-fated bid for the US presidency four years ago.

It is another head-turning appointment in a cabinet filled with wealthy figures from the corporate world, far removed from the blue-collar populism that elected Trump but in line with his “America First” campaign that includes plans for better relations with Russia and weakening environmental regulations.