When Rex Tillerson visits Capitol Hill next month for his confirmation hearings, senators will weigh two competing questions: Are his close ties to Russia disqualifying? Or do his years as the globe-trotting, deal-making chief executive for Exxon Mobil Corp. merit making him the top U.S. diplomat?
The 64-year-old Tillerson has seen his share of difficult meetings: He outplayed his competitors to win an enormous share of Russia’s potential energy wealth, sparred with the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez over his nationalization drive and steered his company away from its most hostile rhetoric on climate change.
And while he has no experience in the public sector, Tillerson has aired his views on several of the biggest policy decisions he’d confront as secretary of state. Here are five key issues Congress will expect President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to address:
The facts: The Obama administration has greatly expanded the use of sanctions as a tool to shape foreign policy, either by tightening restrictions to punish bad behavior — as in the case of Russia, or easing them to reward countries coming into alignment with U.S. goals — such as Myanmar and Cuba.
The critics say: Exxon has felt that pinch in Russia, where its drilling rights cover more territory than its U.S. operations, and Tillerson’s detractors fear he’ll push for a swift unwinding of punitive measures. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say he would be disinclined to keep the Russia sanctions in place,” said Richard Nephew, who helped coordinate the Iran sanctions regime at the State Department.
The pushback: Trump’s incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, told MSNBC the world would have to “wait and see” what the president-elect would do on Russia sanctions. But Tillerson said in 2014 that sanctions often cause “broad collateral damage” and are useless if not properly enforced.
Trump and Trade
The facts: As Exxon Mobil CEO, Tillerson depended on free trade for his company to thrive. As recently as last year, he was a supporter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Obama administration initiative that would bind a dozen Asian nations with the U.S. He has also said open borders with Canada and Mexico are crucial for the energy trade.
The critics say: Tillerson’s biggest critic on trade could be Trump. The president-elect’s opposition to free-trade deals — from the North American Free Trade Agreement to TPP — was a crucial part of his campaign platform. “The deals they have with us are always the worst deal,” he said at a Dec. 9 rally.
The pushback: Tillerson will have to decide whether he cares enough to pressure his boss or, like many Democrats and Republicans who have encountered populist resentment toward free trade, change his tune. Regardless, China says it is moving forward with its own regional trade agreements that don’t include the U.S.
The Facts: Bucking previous Exxon leaders, Tillerson acknowledged in 2012 that increasing carbon emissions will have “a warming impact.” At the same time, he said he believes the consequences are “manageable.” Some environmental groups see as code for “do nothing.”
The critics say: Exxon’s historic support for anti-climate change lobbying groups like the Global Climate Coalition helped make it the evil corporate poster boy for environmentalists. While Tillerson shifted the company’s stance, the hangover from earlier years remains. The company has been accused of misleading investors for decades about the impact of climate change on its business. All that will give Democrats a fat target for televised confirmation hearings.
The Trump pushback: Trump once called climate change a hoax perpetuated by China, though in more recent interviews he’s said he has more of an open mind about the issue. He even met with former Vice President Al Gore, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize for his work to inform the public about climate change. Yet Tillerson has been dismissive of what he sees as the hyperbole surrounding the debate. “The fear factor that people want to throw out there to say we just have to stop this, I do not accept,” he said in 2012.
Exxon’s Global Deals
The facts: Tillerson will leave Exxon owning 2.6 million shares of the company’s common stock worth about $244 million. The Texan has spent his entire career working for the company, making multimillion-dollar deals for it in the Persian Gulf, with Russia and in Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
The critics say: Can Tillerson just walk away from a life with Exxon and focus on the best interests of the U.S. as opposed to his old company? Will he be able to see U.S. foreign relations from anything but the perspective of an oil man? Some who know him well say yes, but Congress will ask pointed questions about his true interests.
See a chart showing that Exxon shareholders expect benefits.
The pushback: “If he is secretary of state I think he would pursue U.S. interests and that would be his mission and his focus,” Daniel Yergin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “‘The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power,” said in an interview. “We haven’t had a secretary of state who came from the business community for a long time, but he’s been pretty heavily schooled in international relations.”
The ‘Trump Factor’
The facts: Secretaries of state are given different degrees of power, and it’s unclear how much Tillerson will be allowed to veer from — or help shape — Trump’s policies. He has no experience in government or devising foreign policy, but then again, neither does Trump, so the dynamic is anyone’s guess.
The critics say: Trump’s desire for closer ties with Russia were a hallmark of his speeches, and some senators worry he wants to exploit Tillerson’s contacts to achieve that end. “What you can’t do as a secretary of state” to succeed is let “people around the world see daylight between you and your boss,” Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Tuesday on Bloomberg TV.
The pushback: Trump calls Tillerson a “world-class guy” whose global experience cutting deals for Exxon will help negotiate better, not worse, agreements with Russia. “The truth is having relationships with people is not a bad thing,” says Priebus.
Tillerson’s confirmation hearing may be held even before Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration.