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Should Trump Foes See Tillerson At State As Last Straw Or First Ray Of Hope?

ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson is Donald Trump's pick for secretary of state. Liberals have howled over his nomination and so have some GOP hawks. But should they?
Eric Piermont
AFP/Getty Images
ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson is Donald Trump's pick for secretary of state. Liberals have howled over his nomination and so have some GOP hawks. But should they?

Several of Donald Trump's Cabinet choices have prompted controversy from the moment they were named, but the one most likely to face real Senate opposition is Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil, whom Trump wants as his secretary of state.

How badly did Trump want Tillerson on his team? Badly enough to defend his pick's remarkable profile as a Russophile, a reputation so vivid that several Republican senators immediately began flashing yellow cards — if not red.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said being a "Friend of Vladimir" was hardly a Cabinet qualification, a reference to Russian President Putin, who once gave Tillerson the "Order of Friendship" — the highest accolade Moscow grants to friendly foreigners.

Arizona Sen. John McCain went farther, calling Putin a "murderer, a thug and a KGB agent," a reference to the Russian leader's early career with the Soviet Union's secret police. So was he calling Tillerson a friend of murderers, thugs and KGB agents?

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham added his grave doubts, as well, suggesting there might be enough Republican defections from the GOP's 52-seat majority to block the nomination on the Senate floor.

This much at least is clear: For all the shade that has been thrown on other Trump Cabinet picks — from the generals to the Goldman Sachs alumni club — none seems in as much danger of Senate rejection as the big guy from the Big Oil company.

Trump no doubt knew he would catch flak over Tillerson's Putin ties, but saw them as proof of the Texan's deal-making and globe-trotting savvy. And he was settled enough on his man to stand by him even after the story had broken about the CIA concluding the Russians interfered with the 2016 election with an eye to aiding Trump.

Under these extraordinary circumstances, many will see the Tillerson pick as Trump doubling down on a potentially explosive departure from Republican orthodoxy. The party that nominated Trump has never been at ease with his defense of Putin as "a strong leader" or his divergence from the party's longstanding commitment to NATO. (A more traditional GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, said during the 2012 presidential debates that Russia was the biggest threat to the U.S. on the planet.)

At the same time, for those who say they like Trump because he sticks to his guns, Tillerson is proof — and as such he offers a chance to cheer. And for those who prefer a practitioner of private sector realpolitik over a politician or a polished diplomat, Tillerson may fill the bill rather admirably.

For others, even those implacably opposed to Trump and Tillerson both, this may be a moment to consider the options. Sure, the head of ExxonMobil may be the antithesis of everything you hold dear. Yes, you would have preferred the head of Greenpeace USA. But given that Trump was choosing, what did you expect?

Tillerson has drawn predictable pushback from all the proper quarters. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders called it "very troubling ... very sad ... very dangerous," because it meant Trump saw "the short-term profits of the fossil fuel industry [as] more important than climate change and the future of the planet."

Environmental groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund said Trump was putting the oil-and-gas industry interests above Americans' health. Government watchdogs, such as Every Voice, were disturbed, because Tillerson owns so much stock in a company active in 50 countries with interests likely to conflict with those of the U.S.

As an example, Tillerson has opposed the U.S.-NATO sanctions on Russia imposed after the latter annexed Crimea — after those sanctions blocked his company's plans to drill below the Arctic Sea with Moscow's blessing. That issue will surely be a feature of his confirmation hearings, if not a major stumbling block.

But elections have consequences, as President Obama was once fond of saying. Tillerson makes sense in a Trumpian world, because he breaks the mold of diplomats and politicians who usually command the U.S. State Department. He has no government experience, but that is surely not disqualifying in the Trump administration.

Trump and Tillerson are two tough-minded corporate businessmen who have spent decades atop large companies with global interests. Both have a penchant for big projects and a professed devotion to the works of philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand.

Trump makes a show of downscale tastes while living in a tower on Fifth Avenue. Tillerson has the versatility to talk Texan while also playing the sophisticated realist who sees the world as something more than us versus them. At ExxonMobil he has led a complex, worldwide organization that at least publicly recognizes the realities of climate change, fossil fuels and alternative energies.

That veneer of commitment to future technologies will not placate those who see environmental disaster on the horizon. But if Tillerson defines the extremes of drill-baby-drill for these activists, that is just fine with the man who is soon to redecorate the Oval Office.

One might say the whole idea behind the Trump Cabinet is to pick people who personify "the problem" — as defined in the liberal mindset. Whether Trump ultimately follows his team of hotspurs or uses them as heat shields as he negotiates a new reality, he sees them all as serving his purpose — not the other way around.

Trump nominees Georgia Rep. Tom Price (Health and Human Services) and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (the Environmental Protection Agency) are prime examples of this. Each can protect Trump's right flank within the GOP if and when the new president cuts his own deals on health care and the environment.

Tillerson is more multidimensional than that, and may prove more original and interesting. Trump clearly wants a redefinition of the Russia relationship, and he may pursue that with a combination of Tillerson on one hand and a hard-line old-fashioned Cold Warrior on the other. For example, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton has been mentioned as a possible No. 2 at State.

That should be a sufficient reminder to administration critics that other candidates for the most prestigious and symbolic Cabinet job — including Bolton and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani — might have made the Tillerson choice seem palatable by comparison.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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