(Corrects spelling of company name in first paragraph, Exxon
Mobil instead of Exxon Mobile)
By Valerie Volcovici and Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON Dec 11 The central question facing
Exxon Mobil Corp. chief executive Rex Tillerson if he becomes
U.S. secretary of state is whether a life-long oil man with
close ties to Russia can pivot from advancing corporate
interests to serving the national interest.
Tillerson, 64, got his start as a production engineer at
Exxon in 1975 and has worked there ever since, running business
units in Yemen, Thailand and Russia before being named chief
executive in 2006. He was expected to retire next year.
Critics suggested that if President-elect Donald Trump were
to choose Tillerson - as a source familiar with the situation
said he was expected to do - it would continue a trend of
selecting some aides who may favor a softer line toward Moscow.
Among these is Trump's pick for national security adviser,
Michael Flynn, who raised eyebrows when he sat beside Russian
President Vladimir Putin at a Moscow banquet last year and who
has argued that the United States and Russia should collaborate
to end Syria's civil war and to defeat Islamic State militants.
Some former officials said it was an open question whether
Tillerson could make the transition from running Exxon, a vast
company that explores for oil and gas on six continents, to the
even greater complexity of being secretary of state.
"Negotiating a real estate deal or an oil contract with
Saudi Arabia is not the same thing," said Aaron David Miller, a
former State Department Middle East specialist now at the Wilson
Center think-tank in Washington.
"It's not a complicated summit where you are trying to
reconcile historical woundings, religious identities, sectarian
"I'm not arguing that he can't make this conversion. I just
don't think we know."
'A STRAIGHT ARROW'?
Many U.S. officials are worried by Russia's increasingly
aggressive behavior. It annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, has
supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil
war and is accused of interfering in U.S. domestic politics.
U.S. intelligence analysts have concluded that Russia
intervened in the 2016 election to help Trump defeat Hillary
Clinton, and not just to undermine confidence in the U.S.
electoral system, a senior U.S. official said.
In his role at Exxon Tillerson maintained close ties
with Putin and opposed U.S. sanctions against Russia for its
incursion into Crimea.
Daniel Yergin, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The
Prize: the Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power," said Russia
represented a relatively small portion of Exxon's overall
operations and played down its significance.
"It was a business relationship," Yergin said.
"The whole Russian thing is so much front and center now so
it's inevitable that those questions be asked but, obviously, if
you are a major oil company, you want to go to where your
resources (are). You have to replace your reserves," he added.
"If he becomes secretary of state, the interests he will
pursue will be U.S. interests. This is an Eagle Scout kind of
guy. He was president of the Boy Scouts," he said. "He is a
straight arrow. If that's his mission, that's what he'll do."
In an interview to be aired on "Fox News Sunday," Trump
praised Tillerson as "much more than a business executive."
"He's a world class player," Trump said. "To me, a great
advantage is he knows many of the players, and he knows them
However, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a senior
Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that
would weigh Tillerson's nomination, was unsparing in his
criticism of the possible appointment.
"Reports that Rex Tillerson could be nominated to be our
nation's top diplomat (are) alarming and absurd," he said. "With
Rex Tillerson as our secretary of state the Trump administration
would be guaranteeing Russia has a willing accomplice in the
president's cabinet guiding our nation's foreign policy."
Should Tillerson be nominated, climate change could be
another controversial issue.
Exxon is under investigation by the New York Attorney
General's Office for allegedly misleading investors, regulators
and the public on what it knew about global warming.
However, if chosen, Tillerson would be one of the few people
selected for major roles in the Trump administration to believe
that human activity causes climate change.
After Trump's election, Exxon came out in support of the
Paris Climate Agreement. It has also advocated for a carbon tax
and internally factors in a theoretical price on carbon as it
weights manufacturing and exploration costs of projects.
Some environmental groups are alarmed at the prospect of
Exxon's CEO as the country's top diplomat.
"Donald Trump appears intent to undo a century of
environmental and social progress and return America to the age
of robber barons and corporate trusts," said Carroll Muffett,
president of the Center for International Environmental Law.
"Who better to turn to than Exxon, the granddaddy of them
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, John Walcott; and
Dmitry Zhdannikov; Editing by Robert Birsel)