One of the big questions hanging over Trump Tower has been whether Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson will be nominated for secretary of state. Amid growing concerns about Tillerson’s reported close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway recently downplayed the oil executive’s relationship with the Russian leader.
On CBS This Morning, Conway said: "It's not like Vladimir Putin and Rex Tillerson are pounding down vodka at the local bar. They're not intimate friends, but they deal with each other through business interests."
However, with American intelligence agencies saying with “high confidence” that Russian hackers tried to disrupt the U.S. presidential election -- and allegations that their intent was to tilt the outcome to Trump – the widely predicted nomination of Tillerson is getting intense scrutiny in the media and on Capitol Hill. Even some Republican senators are expressing reservations.
Also in the spotlight is Exxon Mobil itself, a corporation with a $379 billion market cap (as of Dec. 12) that operates around the globe as almost a nation-state unto itself, or as Steve Coll wrote in The New Yorker online yesterday, “an independent, transnational corporate sovereign … a power independent of the American government, one devoted firmly to shareholder interests and possessed of its own foreign policy.”
Coll, now dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, wrote a 2012 book about ExxonMobil, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, in which Tillerson plays a prominent role.
What is known about Tillerson, who for the chief executive of the biggest energy company on the planet speaks to the press only rarely, is this:
- At 64, he is a 41-year veteran of ExxonMobil and worked his way up through the ranks. He joined the company after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a civil engineering degree.
- Contrary to Conway’s claims, Coll describes Tillerson as having “close relations with both President Vladimir Putin and Igor Sechin, the close Putin ally who runs Rosneft, one of Russia’s oil-and-gas giants.”
- In 2013, Putin awarded Tillerson the “Order of Friendship,” an honor given to foreigners who have been of service to Russia.
- While ExxonMobil operates across the globe and Tillerson has negotiated with many heads of state, he has no direct foreign policy experience.
- He supports free trade.
- His net worth is around $300 million, The Washington Post estimates.
- Tillerson is a believer in climate change, according to Coll.
- A major supporter and former president of the Boy Scouts of America, he pushed to allow gay youths to join.
- Coll calls Tillerson “a devotee of Abraham Lincoln.”
- Like Trump’s nominee for labor secretary, fast-food CEO Andy Puzder, Tillerson is reportedly a fan of libertarian writer Ayn Rand. He “once listed his favorite book as Atlas Shrugged,” Coll says.
- Coll also says Tillerson’s Exxon Mobil has defied state department policy in places such as Kurdistan.
- Three Republican senators have expressed concern about Tillerson’s ties to Putin: Marco Rubio of Florida, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina. And Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky says he will “reserve judgment.”
Both Paul and Rubio are on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which would first consider the nomination. On Sunday, Rubio tweeted: “Being a "friend of Vladimir" is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState.”
A secretary of state linked to the Kremlin, which for decades propped up Fidel Castro’s Cuba, would likely not sit well with Rubio backers in the old-line Cuban-American community in South Florida.
McCain, who along with Graham and Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Jack Reed of Rhode Island has called for a bipartisan probe into Russian hacking, was even more forceful. He told Fox that while Tillerson deserves a fair hearing, "I am concerned about his relationship with Vladimir Putin. [Putin] is a thug, a murderer, a KGB guy who only wants to restore the Russian empire."