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Trump Picks Rex Tillerson To Lead The State Department


It's official - President-elect Trump has announced he intends to nominate ExxonMobil chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state. For more we're going to turn now to NPR's Michele Kelemen. Good morning, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: We know Tillerson is a career oil executive, presumably he's had a lot of global dealings in that role. Well, bottom lines are different than diplomatic interests. What qualifies him for this post?

KELEMEN: That's right. I mean, as you said, he joined Exxon back in 1975. He's a Texan who spent his entire career there, though he has traveled and worked in, you know, many countries around the world. He's hitting retirement age 65 next year, so there are big changes ahead if he's confirmed for this job. For one, a big pay cut but also a very different job. He's used to running a company that's larger than the economies of most countries. Steve Coll, who wrote a book about ExxonMobil, described it this way when he spoke to NPR's weekend All Things Considered.


STEVE COLL: The oil industry is a different industry compared to the typical ones that produce national leadership. ExxonMobil is a very large corporation. It operates all over the world negotiating with leaders on behalf of its shareholders. It's kind of a parallel quasi-state.

KELEMEN: You know, Coll said that in many situations ExxonMobil is actually more influential than the State Department. He gave an example of, you know, being in the African nation of Chad. Even Iraq, where ExxonMobil cut a deal with the Kurdish government in the north. That was a move that rankled U.S. diplomats and put them at odds with the State Department's policy. So, you know, we could probably expect some real culture clashes ahead to say the least.

MARTIN: Yeah. Let's talk about his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. They've known each other for decades in business dealings. Is that likely to help or hinder Tillerson's prospects for confirmation in the Senate?

KELEMEN: I think there will be a lot of questions about that in the Senate hearings, particularly because, you know, this comes at a time when intelligence agencies are raising concerns about Russian hacking in the U.S. We're witnessing atrocities in the Syrian city of Aleppo as Russia and Iran help the Syrian regime recapture territory from rebels. You know, these are all questions that both Democrats and Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee are likely to raise with Tillerson. Another big one is what a Trump administration might do with sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine. You know, Tillerson opposed them in part because sanctions slowed down a joint project that ExxonMobil had with Rosneft to drill in the Arctic.

MARTIN: The current Secretary John Kerry has spent a lot of time on efforts to address climate change. Trump is on the record as a climate change skeptic. What do we know about Tillerson's views?

KELEMEN: Well, we know that ExxonMobil has acknowledged that climate change is real. But at the same time it's facing legal battles now over how much it knew beforehand and whether it misled investors and the public about this. So environmental groups are very nervous about this pick, what it'll mean to the Paris climate accord which is now in effect and what it could mean in the future for projects like the Keystone XL pipeline, which the State Department environmental review was one of the big problems there.

MARTIN: So of course there's all kinds of conversations about conflicts of interest. And yesterday I spoke with Ed Verona, who's a former vice president for ExxonMobil Russia. He knows Tillerson. I want to play this clip. He doesn't think conflicts of interest will be a problem for the nominee.


EDWARD VERONA: And anyone who has been CEO of ExxonMobil does not retire without considerable personal wealth, which he has. So I don't think he would be, let's say, seduced by the possibility of enhancing the position of his company.

MARTIN: So saying he's wealthy enough that it's not going to affect his decision making. But is there a precedent, Michele, just briefly, for a corporate CEO taking this job?

KELEMEN: Well, Reagan's Secretary of State George Shultz was an executive with Bechtel. So he came from the private sector but he worked in government. But what we'll likely see is divestment. John Kerry divested, Colin Powell divested to distance themselves from business interests that could become a conflict of interest at the State Department.

MARTIN: NPR's State Department correspondent Michele Kelemen. Thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.