Last week, multiple intelligence organizations confirmed that Russian hackers manipulated the 2016 presidential election in order to help former GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump secure the race. While President-elect Trump has repeatedly denied that Russia was involved in the election, his top pick for Secretary of State has some crying foul. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson and Russian President Vladimir Putin have had close ties for years, and his appointment to Trump's Cabinet could potentially confirm Russia's involvement.
Outgoing ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson has been tapped for the sought-after position of Secretary of State, a Trump transition source told Politico. Tillerson was recommended by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, both of whom met with President-elect Trump to discuss his option earlier this month, according to Politico. Gates in particular praised Tillerson as a shrewd businessman, and said in an interview after making his recommendation to Trump that “It’s a mistake to pigeonhole him as another CEO with a very narrow background," according to The Wall Street Journal. For his part, Trump has said that he admires Tillerson's “relationships with leaders all over the world [that are] second to none.” One of those relationships in particular could land the CEO in hot water when the Senate reviews his confirmation hearings next month: Tillerson has had deep ties with Putin since 1999.
As CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson brokered an important deal with the Russian president in 2011 that allowed his company to drill for oil in the Russian arctic. That deal was subsequently blocked by U.S. sanctions, and Tillerson publicly complained that the sanctions would cause "broad collateral damage." Regardless, Putin and Tillerson's relationship remained intact, with Putin bestowing the Order of Friendship on Tillerson in 2013.
Tillerson, a 64-year-old former engineer who rose through the ranks of ExxonMobil to become CEO, does not have any political background. But he does have a "style and background" that appeals to Trump, Trump transition insiders reportedly told Politico. During his time at ExxonMobil, Tillerson did business with some pretty shady characters; beyond Putin, he has worked with dictators like former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi as well as leaders from Angola, Saudi Arabia, and Chad. But it's his relationship with Putin that has some lawmakers concerned. Tillerson himself spoke at his alma mater, the University of Texas, last February about Putin, according to the Wall Street Journal.
I have a very close relationship with [Mr. Putin]. I don’t agree with everything he’s doing. I don’t agree with everything a lot of leaders are doing. But he understands that I am a businessman. And I have invested a lot of money, our company has invested a lot of money, in Russia, very successfully.
Arizona Sen. John McCain has some questions for Tillerson regarding Putin. The former Republican presidential candidate spoke to CNN about the Order of Friendship award Tillerson received from Putin, and the question of morality vs. money, according to CNN:
Frankly, being against sanctions after Vladimir Putin invaded basically Ukraine and partitioned it in violation of all international law and took Crimea, then that leads to me to the question, what about the issue of morality? There should be some certain standards whatever business we are in. Again, honoring, accepting an honor from Vladimir Putin legitimatizes Vladimir Putin. You see my point?
Whether or not President-elect Donald Trump sees his point, we shall have to wait and see.