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Who Is Rex Tillerson, Trump's Reported Pick For Secretary Of State?


Another big story in the news today is President-elect Donald Trump's possible choice for secretary of state. NPR has not confirmed this, but other media organizations are reporting that the president-elect is leaning toward Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, as his nominee for secretary of state. That prospect is already drawing criticism from those who cite Tillerson's ties with the Russian government and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

To learn more about all this, we called Steve Coll, staff writer at The New Yorker. He reports on national security issues and wrote about Rex Tillerson in his book "Private Empire: ExxonMobil And American Power." Steve Coll is on the line with us from New York City. Steve, thanks so much for joining us.

STEVE COLL: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: First tell us a little bit if you would about who Rex Tillerson is.

COLL: Well, he's a Texan. He grew up. His father was a modestly salaried administrator with the Boy Scouts of America. He was an Eagle Scout. He went to the University of Texas and joined Exxon shortly after graduating and has been there 40 years.

Like a lot of executives at the company, he rose through the ranks, became chief executive about 10 years ago. He spent a lot of his time in the international division, and that's where he developed the ties to Russia that we've heard a lot about this week.

MARTIN: Now, you said in a piece posted this weekend for The New Yorker that the news that he is Donald Trump's choice to lead the Department of State is astonishing on many levels - why astonishing?

COLL: Well, it's unusual in the first instance to have someone come into government at a Cabinet-level position who has never served the United States government really in any capacity during his lifetime. Of course businessmen make the transition fairly often to government service, but often they've been involved with federal jobs before. They've come and gone from industry to government.

And so here you have someone who is coming entirely from the private sector with no experience of government leadership. Secondly, the oil industry is a different industry compared to the typical ones that produce national leadership. ExxonMobil is a very large corporation that really sees itself as an independent sovereign in the world. It has revenue the size of the economy of South Africa. It operates all over the world, negotiating with leaders on behalf of its shareholders. It's kind of a parallel quasi-state.

And so it raises all kinds of questions about how someone like Tillerson, who of course I assume is a patriotic, loyal American - nonetheless, he spent all of his life negotiating on behalf of Exxon's interests, which are not always the same as the interests of the United States and the countries where he's worked. So it would be a very unusual transition to the State Department.

MARTIN: Well, considering these new reports on possible Russian interference in the election to get Donald Trump into the White House, can you tell us what Tillerson's relationship has been with the Russian government and with President Vladimir Putin in particular?

COLL: Well, it was his job at various stages of his career to negotiate oil deals in Russia - post-Soviet Russia, and he did so successfully over a long period of years. And that brought him into contact with Vladimir Putin. ExxonMobil is one of the few American oil companies that has managed to stay in Russia through all kinds of political weather. They had a big project out in Siberia that Tillerson was involved in negotiating.

And then more recently, he signed a very ambitious deal with Rosneft, the Russian oil and gas company that's close to Putin. And that was to drill in the Arctic. Now, that deal has been slowed down by sanctions the United States and Europe have imposed on Russia because of its annexation of Crimea and its interference in Ukraine.

But the larger point is that Tillerson has been coming and going from Moscow for a long time. He's built strong personal relationships around these business negotiations. He knows Putin well personally. He also knows some of Putin's most powerful aides quite well.

MARTIN: And some might consider that to be an asset, a benefit to the country in this particular position. In fact that was really the basis of one of the arguments that Donald Trump made for his own candidacy, which is that he is a businessman who has transnational interests who knows how to negotiate with people and would not be affected by personal monetary considerations because he's already quite wealthy. Wouldn't the same argument apply for Rex Tillerson?

COLL: It could. The question would be whether - of course the United States' interests and a relationship with Russia are quite different from ExxonMobil's. ExxonMobil has sought a stable relationship with Russia understandably so that ExxonMobil can produce oil there and make money for its shareholders.

The United States is a member of the NATO alliance committed to the defense of the Baltic states and European countries that are quite nervous about Russia. The United States certainly has looked on with dismay as Russia has gone outside of its borders over the last couple of years into Ukraine, taking Crimea. Its activism in Syria certainly raise a lot of questions about whether Vladimir Putin is someone that the United States wants to have a friendly relationship with or whether his ambitions are something the United States should be seeking to contain.

And so if Rex Tillerson has views about Russia as an American leader that are distinct from the views he has managed as ExxonMobil's chief executive, then that's something I'm sure that even Republican senators like John McCain are going to want him to clarify if he's nominated for confirmation by the Senate.

MARTIN: Steve, thanks so much for speaking with us.

COLL: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Steve Coll is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of "Private Empire: ExxonMobil And American Power." He joined us from New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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