National Security & Defense

The Trouble with Tillerson

Tillerson testifies on Capitol Hill in 2010. (Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)
Trump’s pick for secretary of state is certainly qualified, but we have no idea what he believes.

Let’s stipulate that Rex Tillerson is qualified to be secretary of state. ExxonMobil is one of the ten most valuable public corporations in the world, with annual revenues of more than $230 billion and a market capitalization of $363 billion. It depends on access to oil resources in nations across the globe and thus essentially has its own foreign policy, and Tillerson has been its CEO for more than a decade. By experience and knowledge alone, he isn’t just “qualified”; he’s one of the most qualified Americans alive.

But his qualifications aren’t at issue; his philosophy is.

Unlike multiple other Trump picks, we simply don’t know what Tillerson truly believes. And that makes him a sharp departure from Trump’s other cabinet picks. As a businessman who never served in the military, the president-elect eased doubts about his ability to run the Pentagon by choosing James Mattis as secretary of defense. He signaled his commitment to a tough and uncompromising homeland-security policy by picking John Kelly to run DHS. Jeff Sessions, Betsy DeVos, and Rick Perry, too, had well-developed worldviews and lengthy track records in politics.

In other words, Trump’s cabinet has thus far been filled with nominees who allow him to say, “If you don’t trust me, you can certainly trust my pick.” Whether he cares about expanding his base or not, his choices have helped ease the concerns not just of the few remaining Never Trumpers but also of the millions who voted for him despite their worries about his inexperience and/or his commitment to conservative principles.

Tillerson, by contrast, is a secretary of state nominee with (as of yet) no known foreign-policy philosophy. He’s spent his entire career at ExxonMobil, which means his extensive dealings with foreign governments have all been in the service of the company’s bottom line. And doing what’s best for the company’s bottom line has just so happened to mean forging a close, decades-long working relationship with Vladimir Putin.

Tillerson’s ties to Russia and the Kremlin are old and deep. Before becoming ExxonMobil’s CEO, he helped manage its Russian ventures. In his 40+ years at the company, it has made immense investments in Russia, and in his capacity as CEO, he has opposed sanctions implemented as punishment for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Putin personally awarded him the “Order of Friendship,” the highest honor Russia bestows on foreign citizens.

Tillerson is the pick least likely to ease concerns that Trump is too close to Putin.

Given these ties, Tillerson is the pick least likely to ease concerns that Trump is too close to Putin, perhaps the most formidable adversary our nation faces. During the campaign, Trump was all over the place in his foreign-policy pronouncements — lurching from left-wing conspiracy theories (Bush lied, people died), to isolationism, to old-school exploitation (bomb them all and take their oil). But his public admiration of Putin has been longstanding, consistent, and troubling — even to the extent that he’s excused the Russian regime’s alleged murder of journalists by saying, “I think our country does plenty of killing also.”

During and after the campaign, Trump has responded to claims that Russia tried to interfere in the election with self-interested and incredible skepticism (at one point arguing that the hacker could have been “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds”), and by attacking the credibility of American intelligence agencies. On Friday, he responded to reports that the CIA believes Russia was trying to help him win by saying, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”

#related#Oddly enough, to deflect critics of the pick, Trump’s team is pointing people to George W. Bush’s foreign-policy establishment, which he so mercilessly criticized during the Republican primaries. Tillerson donated to Right to Rise, the super PAC that backed Jeb Bush, and key players in the Bush administration’s foreign policy, including Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Bob Gates, have endorsed his nomination. (When “draining” the swamp doesn’t work, you can always seek its seal of approval.)

In other words, the Tillerson pick seems more like an extended middle finger at critics of Trump’s dalliance with Putin than anything else, but it’s also a puzzling repudiation of his base. To the extent that Tillerson isn’t a dangerously pro-Russian choice to run Foggy Bottom, it’s only because he’s a card-carrying member of the Bush wing of the Republican party. He is, in other words, not the kind of outsider Trump’s most loyal supporters voted for — and that may be the only reason he earns Senate confirmation.

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