Donald Trump has now picked ExxonMobile CEO (NYSE: XOM) Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State, renewing fears of both men’s ties to Russia while deepening scrutiny over Russia’s interference in this year’s elections.
Tillerson’s appointment comes as a surprise after Donald Trump quietly withdrew several key names from the race. At one point, both Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani as well as vocal Trump critic Mitt Romney were widely thought to be front-runners for the role. Some argued that picking Giuliani was a natural choice given the ex-mayor’s aggressive support for Trump, while extending the position to Romney might have been a way to bridge the gap between Donald Trump and more mainstream Republicans, many of whom are still at odds with the President-elect over his impulsive behavior and controversial positions.
Critics have pointed out that Rex Tillerson, like Trump, has insufficient foreign policy experience to serve as America’s prime diplomat. More, Tillerson’s flagrant ties to Russia have deepened concerns not only over Trump’s own entanglements, but also Russia’s role in the presidential race. During the campaign trail, Donald Trump praised Vladimir Putin as a “brilliant” and unifying force, questioned the validity of NATO, and even invited Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton’s e-mail accounts, a shocking remark which Trump dismissed as a mere joke.
By contrast, Putin is widely considered an authoritarian ruler by the democratic West and still faces heavy sanctions for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. According to the New York Times, these sanctions have hurt Tillerson’s potential business interests in Russia. In response, the oil executive has called for these sanctions to be lifted.
“As head of America’s largest oil company, Mr. Tillerson has earned a friendship award from Russia and voiced skepticism about American sanctions that have halted some of Exxon Mobil’s biggest projects in the country.
“But Mr. Tillerson’s stake in Russia’s energy industry could create a very blurry line between his interests as an oilman and his role as America’s leading diplomat.
“‘The chances that he will view Russia with Exxon Mobil DNA are close to 100 percent,’ said Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, a public interest group based in Washington.
“A tall, strapping Texan, Mr. Tillerson guided Exxon’s entry into the sharp-elbowed oil politics of Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. He has praised the country for its vast potential as an oil supplier ever since, developing close ties to the Kremlin leadership along the way.”
As a result, some prominent officials, including Republican Senator John McCain, key Democrats, and presidential hopeful Marco Rubio have expressed concern over Trump’s pick, pointing out that Tillerson’s business dealings would be difficult to separate from what ought to be a neutral role in the administration.
Further, Rex Tillerson’s appointment comes on the heels of deepening revelations over Russia’s role in this year’s election. According to NPR, the consensus of the intelligence community is that not only has Russia hacked into sensitive e-mails and election operations, but also that Russia had a vested interest in seeing Trump elected, charges which Trump has vocally denied despite mounting evidence.
“Commentators linked to the Kremlin talked openly about why they supported Trump and why they believed him to be a better candidate for Russia and the world.
“Russia’s state media hailed Trump’s election and praised the notion that he might nominate Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who has extensive ties in Russia, as secretary of state. The Kremlin also underwrites a team of so-called trolls to post on Twitter and elsewhere on social media.
“Putin and Trump also praised each other. But Russian diplomats also reached out to Trump’s camp behind the scenes, and members of Trump campaign team also had their own previous contacts with Russia.”
Still, others are less convinced. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) disputes the reason behind Russia’s hacking, concluding that while Russian involvement is clear, their motivations aren’t. Trump, himself, has pushed back against the CIA’s allegations, blaming them on anger over Hillary Clinton’s surprising loss. Trump supporters have also called the allegations a “false flag” meant to impair the President-elect’s ability to govern. Others see it as a national security concern despite Russia’s motives as Congress now prepares for a formal, bipartisan inquiry.
Rex Tillerson was ranked No. 25 in Forbes’ 2015 list of the world’s most powerful people. Now that he enjoys the mild possibility of being Trump’s Secretary of State, he would be in the position to inch even higher as he opens Russia to his own style of corporatism.
[Featured Image by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images]