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Trump picks Tillerson as top diplomat, sets up messy confirmation fight

US president-elect Donald Trump has chosen ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, an oil executive with no experience in diplomacy, as his pick for secretary of state.

world Updated: Dec 13, 2016 22:13 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times
Donald Trump,Rex Tillerson,secretary of state
File photo of Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Rosneft chief executive Igor Sechin and ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson at a signing ceremony in the Black Sea town of Tuapse, Russia, on June 15, 2012. (Reuters)

It was in 2001 that India got a taste of the unparalleled clout of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who was on Tuesday chosen by US president-elect Donald Trump as his nominee for secretary of state.

At the time, ONGC was to join the Sakhalin I consortium on Sakhalin Island but was facing inordinate delays from ExxonMobil, which was leading the grouping.

At a meeting at 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. Not even the US president, said to be the leader of the free world.

Trump’s decision to opt for Tillerson ended a messy search but set up a contentious confirmation over the 64-year-old oil executive’s close ties to Russia.

Tillerson had led the Russia operations of his company, and shares a cozy relationship with President Vladimir Putin, which might have served him well at another time, but not after recent allegations of Moscow meddling in US elections.

Some Republican senators who sit on the committee that will confirm, or reject, Tillerson have said they have “serious concerns with the nomination” and announced their intention to take a “thorough” look at his ties with Russia.

They had been warning from before, but Trump went ahead anyway. “His tenacity, broad experience and deep understanding of geopolitics make him an excellent choice for secretary of state,” Trump said in a statement announcing his pick.

“Rex knows how to manage a global enterprise, which is crucial to running a successful state department, and his relationships with leaders all over the world are second to none.”

And one of them, with Putin, could make for a messy confirmation.

Tillerson said in a statement that he shares with Trump “his vision for restoring the credibility” of America’s foreign relations and added, “We must focus on strengthening our alliances, pursuing shared national interests and enhancing the strength, security and sovereignty of the United States.”

The executive has no experience in diplomacy or foreign policy, but has forged extensive ties around the world with global leaders during the conduct of business operations for his company, which measures its worldwide presence in continents, not countries.

Tillerson is from Texas, born and raised there, and joined ExxonMobil when it was still called Exxon in 1975 as a production engineer. He rose through the ranks rapidly to become production adviser to the company in 1992.

He was promoted as vice president of Exxon Ventures Inc and president of Exxon Neftegas Limited in 1998, making him responsible for the company’s holdings in Russia and the Caspian Sea as well as the Sakhalin I consortium operations.

Tillerson will now listen to a president, of course. But will he follow through, given some known differences with Trump on key issues? Tillerson is a believer in climate change, for one.

“The risk of climate change is clear and the risk warrants action,” ExxonMobil said on its website. “Increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere are having a warming effect.”

Trump has called climate change a hoax played by the Chinese.

Tillerson is also a firm believer in free trade, which is currently in Trump’s bad books unless it favours the US. He says sanctions are useless, while the president-elect and Republicans have pushed for new ones, especially against Iran.

Trump will have his way if it came to that, but India will be relieved to have a disbeliever in sanctions at the state department, which enforces them. It was forced to go off Iran in the last round of sanctions, disrupting a time-tested supply line for its crude imports.

Rick Perry to head energy department

Trump is also reported to have named Rick Perry to head the energy department, which the former Texas governor had once wanted to abolish.

Running for the Republican president ticket in 2012, Perry had said at a debate he would abolish three departments if elected, but couldn’t name all of them.

He mentioned education and commerce, and was stuck for the third. “The third one, I can’t. Sorry. Oops.” Those words destroyed his run — though he did mention energy, but later.

Now he is likely to head the department, which spends most its budget on maintaining the US stockpile of nuclear weapons but also funds research.

First Published: Dec 13, 2016 21:48 IST