The year was 2001. India’s state-run Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) was negotiating terms for joining an international consortium with rights to own and drill for petroleum in Sakhalin, Russia. The consortium was led by US oil and gas giant ExxonMobil, which was taking its time.
At a meeting in the White House, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked President George W Bush for help. “Why don’t you just tell them what to do?” Singh asked.
“Nobody tells those guys what to do,” Bush replied.
“Those guys”, as the exchange was reported by Steve Coll in his book “Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American power”, were the ExxonMobil, whose Russian operations, including Sakhalin, were being run then by Rex Tillerson, who would rise to head the oil giant in 2006, and become Donald Trump’s possible pick for secretary of state in 2016.
Multiple US news outlets reported on Saturday Trump had made up his mind, and he was to name Tillerson his top diplomat, ending a highly contentious search that had the president-elect’s top advises bickering in public.
Questions began to be raised almost immediately if Tillerson’s Russia links, given recent allegations of Moscow’s interference in the recently concluded presidential election, could come in the way. Would Trump persist despite the criticism?
But Trump teased the possibility in a tweet on Sunday morning: “Whether I choose him or not for “State” —Rex Tillerson, the chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, is a world class player and deal maker. Stay Tuned.”
The Trump transition team had not confirmed or denied these reports till hours after they first surfaced, but Jason Miller, the spokesman, wrote in a tweet, “Transition update: No announcements on secretary of state until next week at the earliest.”
Trump, who was at the annual navy versus army football game as Tillerson reports came, was expected to make an announcement only next week, according to his aides. And he may still stick to that schedule, to confirm it is Tillerson. Or someone else, from a long list of contenders that included Mitt Romney, senator Bob Corker, former UN ambassador John Bolton, former governor Jon Huntsman, former CIA director David Petraeus and retired admiral James Stavridis.
Tillerson had begun to emerge as a leading contender in the last few days and had a long two-hour meeting on Saturday with Trump, the day after Rudy Giuliani, another major contender took himself out of the consideration.
The Exxon CEO has no experience of standard diplomacy or foreign policy, but because of extensive deal-making around the globe he has forged close ties with many world leaders, including the Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Tillerson’s Russian connection became the highlight of most of the reporting about him being picked to lead state and some publications ran pictures of him with Putin to further underline that link, hinting at something more sinister.
It could be just the timing, coming as it did just the day after reports about US intelligence agencies stating in secret briefings Russia had hacked into the computer networks of the Democratic party with the intention to help Trump win.
The Trump transition team is pushing back on that vigorously, and may now have to explain the Tillerson’s links to Moscow to dispel feelings of concern about Trump administration’s unusually close ties with the Kremlin.
Tillerson, 64, has been with Exxon for over 45 years, starting as a production engineer. He became chairman and CEO in 2006, and beat back attempt by founder John D Rockefeller’s family to separate the offices of chairman and CEO in 2008.
And if Trump goes with Tillerson despite the backlash over Russia links, he would be one more CEO and millionaire in the president-elect’s team, which is already the wealthiest in US history with a combined worth of $35 billion.