WASHINGTON >> Rex W. Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, whose extensive deal-making for the energy giant has plunged him into global politics from Yemen to Russia, is expected to be offered the secretary of state post this weekend by President-elect Donald Trump, according to two people close to Trump’s transition team.
Tillerson has close ties with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, whom he has known for more than two decades. Russia awarded Tillerson its Order of Friendship in 2013, the year before Washington’s relationship with Moscow sank into a deep freeze over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its shadow war in eastern Ukraine.
Relations with Russia have grown only more troubled since U.S. intelligence agencies formally determined shortly after the November election that Russia had taken steps intended to help Trump win.
Tillerson, with no background in diplomacy outside the energy arena, would inherit those problems. He would also face the question of whether to maintain sanctions on Russia — penalties he has criticized for slowing Exxon’s investments in that country.
His connections to Russia are sure to come under scrutiny during a Senate confirmation hearing. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Saturday that Tillerson’s ties to Putin were “a matter of concern to me.”
“I’d have to examine it,” he said on Fox News, adding that “Vladimir Putin is a thug, bully and a murderer, and anybody else who describes him as anything else is lying.”
Tillerson’s success in business gives him a major credential with Trump, who values that background, along with loyalty, above other traits. He would be one of several wealthy business executives in top administration jobs.
Tillerson met with Trump for more than two hours Saturday at Trump Tower in New York, and two of the president-elect’s key advisers, his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have told Trump that Tillerson is in a “different league” from his other options.
But Trump is famously mercurial and could change his mind before making his final decision public. A transition spokesman, Jason Miller, declined to comment. Among the other contenders have been Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, and Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Trump’s team has discussed the possibility of appointing as deputy secretary John R. Bolton, a highly conservative and combative veteran of the George W. Bush administration. Trump has also spoken with Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a far more centrist figure.
Tillerson, 64, has spent the past 41 years at Exxon, where he began as a production engineer and went on to strike deals around the world for a company that explores, buys and sells oil and gas in some of the globe’s most troubled corners.
If confirmed by the Senate, Tillerson will deal with many of the world leaders he encountered at Exxon, but with a very different agenda. In addition to an increasingly aggressive Russia, he will have to manage a raging war in Syria that has consumed the last year of diplomatic efforts by Secretary of State John Kerry, a rising China that is staking claims in the South China Sea, and a North Korea that is growing closer to being able to launch a nuclear-armed missile at the United States.
The kind of deal-making diplomacy that Tillerson has excelled at is far different from the alliance-building required of a secretary of state, often without the incentive of profits for negotiating partners.
Tillerson assumed the role of chairman and chief executive of Exxon Mobil in January 2006, and during his tenure the company acknowledged, for the first time, the science underlying climate change. It has said it supports the creation of a carbon tax, which most Republicans have opposed, and it also supported the Paris climate agreement, a major focus of Kerry’s time in office. Trump has vowed to abandon the climate pact.
In May, Tillerson told shareholders that “we believe that addressing the risk of climate change is a global issue,” adding that it would require the cooperation of governments, businesses and individuals.
Executives at Exxon describe Tillerson as a strong leader, accustomed to making decisions and giving orders. Some have expressed surprise that he would be interested in the job of secretary of state, because he would not be the final decision-maker.
A native of Wichita Falls, Texas, Tillerson speaks with a strong Texas twang and is known for quoting Boy Scout creeds. If he has faced a failure as a leader of Exxon, it was that he was slow to invest in the oil and gas shale fields around Texas and North Dakota. Preferring to invest in big, expensive projects around the world, he left the shale fields open to smaller, more nimble independent companies.
When he finally bought XTO, a shale gas-producing company, in 2009 for more than $30 billion, he did so when natural gas prices were at a peak. After paying a premium for the company, Exxon’s earnings have suffered in recent years.
Still, in total, Tillerson has excelled in the somewhat rigid atmosphere inside Exxon. Steve Coll, author of “Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power,” noted in 2012 that Tillerson presided over a company that had succeeded “where the question is numbers, or engineering effectiveness, or worker safety performance.”
“But when the question involves the human factor, building trust with your communities where you’re drilling, or convincing people that fracking is not going to ruin their water, or dealing with political environments in 150 different countries with lots of supply problems, or dealing with violence on the ground around your oil fields in Africa — in all of those areas, I think they have a habit of not really taking anybody’s advice,” Coll said.
“They keep the windows closed,” added Coll, now dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “They have an enormous amount of confidence in themselves, and I think they defeat themselves in these other areas of political communications more often than they need to.”
The question is how Tillerson will mesh with the far less hierarchical world of the State Department, where dissent is common, leaks about decision-making are often the order of the day, and success and failure are not measured on a balance sheet.
He is no stranger to political upheaval, however. Exxon has operations in about 50 countries, and Tillerson has not been shy about promoting the interests of his company, whether they coincide with U.S. policy or not.
Shortly after he took the helm, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela moved to nationalize the assets of 22 foreign oil companies. Most chose to negotiate compensation arrangements. But Exxon Mobil, along with ConocoPhillips, took Venezuela to international arbitration court, and in 2014 Exxon won a $1.6 billion compensation package.
It was a fraction of what the company had demanded, but Exxon showed unusual toughness. The company also mobilized a serious exploration effort in Guyanese waters claimed by Venezuela, and that work is expected to eventually result in major production.
Exxon has close ties to the Qatari national oil company, and has partnered with the Qataris in building a liquefied natural gas terminal on the Gulf of Mexico coast that is designed for importing gas and may eventually be used for exporting it, as well.
He has also signed deals to develop oil fields in the autonomous region of Kurdistan, angering an important U.S. ally, Iraq, which bars such direct dealings.
But most controversial is Exxon’s close relationship with Russia, which Tillerson has worked hard to strengthen. Exxon has various joint ventures around Russia with the state-backed oil giant Rosneft, and has contributed to social programs in education and health.
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Western sanctions prohibiting certain energy development activities have posed a hurdle to Exxon’s investments in Russia, particularly a joint venture with Rosneft that was supposed to start drilling for oil in 2014 in the Kara Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean. Tillerson has spoken out against sanctions, in part because the company is unable to collect revenues from an investment in an oil and gas consortium to which Exxon belongs that operates off Sakhalin Island.
“We always encourage the people who are making those decisions to consider the very broad collateral damage of who are they really harming with sanctions,” Tillerson told shareholders at the company’s 2014 annual meeting.
Last week, Exxon became a major player in Mexico by successfully bidding with other international oil companies for the right to explore and develop deepwater reserves. The auction came at a time when Mexico is primed for a confrontation with Trump, who has vowed to build a wall along the border.