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Trump Expected to Tap Oil Chief As Secretary of State

ExxonMobil's CEO draws scorn from experts and lawmakers as Trump continues to build his cabinet of moguls and generals.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and
Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (L) speaks with ExxonMobil President and Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson during the signing of a Rosneft-ExxonMobil strategic partnership agreement in Sochi on August 30, 2011. Russia's oil champion Rosneft and US ExxonMobil clinched a global deal worth up to half-a-trillion dollars that will see the US supermajor take BP's place in pioneering Arctic exploration work. AFP PHOTO / RIA NOVOSTI / POOL / ALEXEY DRUZHININ (Photo credit should read ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)

The reality show that was the competition to be President-elect Donald Trump’s secretary of state appears to be over. Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, is the leading contender to be Trump’s diplomat-in-chief, a person close to the Trump transition confirmed to Foreign Policy on Saturday.

Additionally, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton has been selected to serve as Tillerson’s deputy, the person told FP, speaking on condition of anonymity. The expected Tillerson nomination was first reported by NBC News.

Tillerson, who has been chief of the largest publicly traded oil company in the world for 12 years, has no government or diplomatic experience. He does, however, plenty of experience with Russia.

Tillerson has represented Exxon’s interests in Russia, and has reportedly had extensive interaction with Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. Tillerson and Putin have known each other since the regime of then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin. In 2011, Tillerson reached a deal to give Exxon access to Russian Arctic resources, and allowed Russian state oil company Rosneft to invest in Exxon concessions. That deal was blocked by by U.S. sanctions on Russia in 2014.

Tillerson also has spoken out against sanctions, imposed by the U.S. and European Union, to punish Russia for threatening the territorial integrity of Ukraine. And in 2013, Tillerson received the “Order of Friendship,” one of Moscow’s top awards for foreigners, from Putin. Tillerson also apparently owns $151 million worth of Exxon shares.

If Tillerson is confirmed, the oil chief would become fourth in the line of succession for the U.S. presidency. His anticipated nomination, which Trump’s has not yet officially announced, comes amidst confusion as to how the president-elect will resolve his own conflicts of interest — and news that a CIA special assessment says that Russia meddled in America’s elections with the specific intention of helping Trump win.

Tillerson has not been very vocal about his views on American foreign policy in the past, but what comments he’s made indicates a worldview that differs with Trump on some of the president-elect’s top campaign issues. Tillerson believes in human-caused climate change and endorsed the Paris international climate change agreement, unlike Trump.

Trump and Tillerson also seem to clash on free trade. The Exxon chief has spoken favorably of NAFTA, a free trade deal that Trump excoriated on the campaign trail. In a 2012 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, Tillerson praised NAFTA and what it has done for resource co-investment in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Trump has said that he will either renegotiate or “terminate” the 1994 trade deal.

But the two men share a distaste for the mainstream media. In that same speech, commenting on the controversial growth of the U.S. natural gas industry, Tillerson said, “We’re not particularly aided in our efforts by the broad-based media, because it’s a lot sexier to write the fear stories than it is to write the here’s-how-you-manage-it story.”

The reports of Tillerson’s impending nomination have already drawn significant surprise — and scorn — from both lawmakers and foreign policy experts, mostly centered on the oil chief’s ties with Putin. “Rex Tillerson has extensive business dealings with Putin & Russia, favors doing away with sanctions. Huge conflict of interests if SecState,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee said on Twitter.

“I don’t know what Mr. Tillerson’s relationship with Vladimir Putin was, but I’ll tell you it is a matter of concern for me,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a Saturday interview with Fox News.

“Tillerson as secretary of state would signify the greatest discontinuity in U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War,” Russian expert Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said.

But Tillerson’s lack of formal diplomatic experience and Russia ties didn’t rattle other experts. “Oil folks know stuff: anyone who manages multi-billion dollar, multi-decade projects needs deep, nuanced understanding of political context,” Suzanne Maloney, a Middle East expert and former Exxon Mobil advisor, said.

“Inside-the-Beltway types don’t have monopoly on wisdom about international affairs: my [ExxonMobil] colleagues had sharp grasp of regional dynamics,” she added.

Picking Bolton, however, would seem to clash with Tillerson and Trump. Bolton is a unilateralist, an interventionist, and a sharp critic of the U.N. who has said that the United States should conduct itself in such a way as to cause Putin “pain.” Veteran diplomats are wary of Bolton:  Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said the appointment would be “very scary. Even former Bush administration officials I know (& I know a lot of them) worry about Bolton’s return.”

Trump spokesman Jason Miller said the transition team wouldn’t announce its final decision on the secretary of state post until next week at the earliest. Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York City and top Trump ally, formally withdrew his name Friday from consideration for an administration appointment. Giuliani was considered a top contender for secretary of state just a few weeks ago.

Photo credit: ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin