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'Diplomat with a drillbit': Assessing Trump's State pick Tillerson

President-elect Donald Trump's selection of Exxon Mobil Corp. CEO Rex Tillerson for secretary of state has sparked significant debate on Capitol Hill, where his confirmation is expected to come down to whether his experience running a multinational business outweighs his established ties to Russia.

Tillerson, whose selection was announced Dec. 13, was praised by Trump for his "tenacity, broad experience and deep understanding of geopolitics."

"[Tillerson] will promote regional stability and focus on the core national security interests of the United States. 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," Trump said.

Though Tillerson, 64, has never served in a diplomatic capacity before, some observers cited his track record as the leader of the world's largest publicly traded oil and gas company as evidence of his ability.

Kevin Book, managing director of research at ClearView Energy Partners, called Tillerson a "diplomat with a drillbit."

"Supermajors are diplomats who happen to produce oil. You can't find someone in private industry that has better experience negotiating contracts than the head of a supermajor," he said. "They know their way around sovereigns. He's actually been in contact with and doing deals with governments for a long time. That kind of extended engagement and capital commitment [by Exxon] builds stronger relationships."

While Trump's approach to foreign policy remains somewhat nebulous, Book said the Tillerson choice is a sign that he trusts executives' judgment in the international arena.

"The administration's policy will be influenced by the secretary of state. If you look at candidates to date, not one is a shrinking violet, none are used to taking orders, so none are going to be interested in a job with a short leash," Book said. "The secretary of state is going to give shape to something that's yet to be determined. … You have a void with many question marks, but you have a person with an individual and professional history could play a key role."

SNL Image

President-elect Trump applauded Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson's experience running a multinational business.

Photo credit: Associated Press

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., provided early backing for Tillerson's nomination.

"Rex Tillerson's decades of experience have been widely recognized for forward-looking strategic planning, managing international partnerships and risk, and focused leadership around the world," McConnell said. "As President-elect Trump's choice for nomination as Secretary of State, he will bring these critical skills, knowledge and capabilities into an important role after eight years of the Obama administration's uncertain leadership."

Not all members of McConnell's caucus, however, were willing to immediately get on board. Tillerson's relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin raised concerns among a number of Republican senators, including one of Trump's opponents for the 2016 presidential nomination.

"Being a 'Friend of Vladimir' is not an attribute I am hoping for in a Secretary of State," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted on Dec. 12. Rubio added in a Dec. 13 statement that he has "serious concerns" about Tillerson's nomination but looked forward to meeting the Exxon CEO face to face. Veteran GOP Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have also voiced concern over Tillerson's nomination on geopolitical grounds.

Democratic senators provided an even more harsh assessment of Tillerson's nomination than Rubio did. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., called the idea of Tillerson as secretary of state "alarming and absurd."

"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," he said in a Dec. 10 Facebook post. "The term conflict of interest doesn't even begin to describe the web of dubious business interests and bank accounts that Tillerson and his company Exxon shares with Vladimir Putin and Russian oil companies. Having no practical experience in diplomacy, Mr. Tillerson has no proven knowledge or regard for the norms and necessities that so much of our modern diplomatic and security efforts depend upon."

Suzanne Maloney, deputy director for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, told S&P Global Market Intelligence that Tillerson's relationship with Putin should be a topic of serious discussion but should not overshadow the nominee's other attributes.

"[The relationship] ought to explored in confirmation hearings, but I don't think that because he has a long history of doing business in Russia, that he was awarded a medal, speaks to a personal closeness between the two men," she said. "[Russia]'s a tough business environment. … The fact that deals were done should not be a disqualifying factor."

Maloney said Tillerson's success in working with governments around the world as Exxon's CEO works in his favor.

"It's obviously unorthodox [to select a nondiplomat], but my sense is that the experience Rex Tillerson brings to the table is very relevant for someone leading American foreign policy," she said. "It may not be the traditional route to secretary of state, but he's someone who's experienced, and [his] knowledge of the world is very impressive."