Rex Tillerson, who sealed big oil deals and developed close ties with foreign leaders around the globe as head of ExxonMobil, will have to firmly change course to serve as America’s top diplomat. Tillerson, 64, has been chief executive of the world’s biggest publicly-traded oil company since 2006, and spent a career going where the hydrocarbons are. That has often meant negotiating with autocrats, and navigating in politically unstable countries or those with poor human rights records.
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Tillerson’s level of comfort with foreign leaders is a major source of his appeal to President-elect Donald Trump, but it is certain to draw scrutiny during his Senate confirmation hearing. “I have a very close relationship with President Vladimir Putin,” Tillerson said in February at the University of Texas at Austin.
“I don’t agree with everything he is doing, but he understands that I’m a businessman. My company invested a lot of money in Russia very successfully.” But Tillerson has criticized western sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Crimea, with support from the Obama administration.
Asked in a year-end press conference Friday about having a secretary of state with close ties to Russia, President Barack Obama said there will be opportunities to raise questions on Trump’s appointments in the confirmation process.
“There will be plenty of time for members of the Senate to go through the record of all of his appointees and determine whether or not they’re appropriate for the job,” Obama told reporters.
An engineer by training, Tillerson has represented ExxonMobil in a myriad of other politically-challenging countries like Angola, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. When abroad, Tillerson often employed the mantra “I am a businessman” to describe his mission.
“One of the things that I learned early on when I began to work overseas in foreign assignments… is to make sure that the host governments, whether it is Russia, Yemen or the Middle East, making sure that they understand I am not the US government,” Tillerson said.
“I am not here to represent the US government interests. I am not here to defend it, nor am I here to criticize it. I am a businessman.”