What you need to know about Rex Tillerson, Trump's pick for Secretary of State

Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil. A file photo.   | Photo Credit: Reuters

United States Preisent-elect Donald Trump's decision to pick Rex Tillerson, chief executive of ExxonMobil, for the post of Secretary of State may have surprised many.

When speculations were rife about selection of Trump aide and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani or Trump critic and former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Mr. Trump has chosen a corporate executive who has not worked anywhere but with Exxon. Little does the world know about the oil executive’s foreign policy views, except that he, as the Exxon chief, had made deals with many world leaders—from democrats to dictators to monarchs.

But Mr. Tillerson has an impeccable record at Exxon where he joined in 1975 after graduating in civil engineering from the University of Texas. He rose through the ranks to become the chairman and the CEO in 2006. Under his leadership, Exxon has expanded its interests across the world. The company is now involved in hydrocarbon exploration in six of the world’s seven continents and has operations in more than 50 countries. His stake in Exxon is valued at around $151 million, according to securities filing. His reign at Exxon is particularly known for the steady expansion of the company’s interests in Russia.

Russian interests

Exxon’s holdings in Russia are now larger than in the U.S., securities filing shows. Mr. Tillerson cultivated strong business ties with Moscow from the Yeltsin years and is known to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Igor Sechin, CEO of Russian oil giant Rosneft.

Under Mr. Putin, Exxon secured drilling rights across millions of acres in Russia. When Moscow forced Royal Dutch Shell to sell its stakes in a massive gas project on Sakhalin Island in 2006, Exxon’s holdings in the same region remained untouched.

In 2013, the Kremlin conferred Mr. Tillerson with Russia’s Order of Friendship decoration, a year after Exxon signed a strategic cooperation deal with Rosneft. The deal offered Exxon access to Russia’s Arctic resources. The Kremlin considered the deal so important that Mr. Putin himself announced it at a meeting in Sochi.

But those were the days of economic cooperation between the U.S. and Russia. Ties between the two military super powers deteriorated steadily under the Obama administration. After Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, the U.S. and the EU imposed economic sanctions on Russia. The West and Russia are also involved in the Syrian civil war, backing the rebels and the regime, respectively. Exxon’s Arctic deal was stalled after sanctions were put in place.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Tillerson was a critic of the sanctions. Speaking at Exxon’s annual meeting in 2014, months after the Russian annexation of Crimea, he said: “We always encourage the people who are making those decisions to consider the very broad collateral damage of who are they really harming with sanctions.”

Mr. Trump, during the campaign, had promised to rebuild tries with Russia, and if he’s serious about it, Mr. Tillerson’s two-decade long ties with Moscow could come handy. But it could also be a liability when the Secretary of State-designate faces the Senate for confirmation. Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida have already questioned Mr. Tillerson’s dealings with Mr. Putin. “Being a ‘friend ofVladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState,” Sen. Rubio tweeted on Sunday after reports said the President-elect had settled on the oil executive.

But Mr. Trump may be hoping that Mr. Tillerson’s dealings with leaders from around the world would help him rescript the U.S. foreign policy. Speaking in an interview on Fox News, he let the world know what he’s thinking about his choice for the top diplomatic job. Mr. Tillerson is “a world class player…And to me, a great advantage is he knows many of the players.”

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2022 3:18:20 PM |

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