ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, named in the press as Donald Trump’s candidate for secretary of state, has stated publicly that he has known Russian leader Vladimir Putin for 17 years and “I have a very close relationship with him.”
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Speaking earlier this year at a lecture series organized by the University of Texas, Tillerson said that he doesn’t agree with everything Putin does, but he doesn’t agree with what many foreign leaders do “and he understands that I am a businessman.” He added that in his contacts with Putin and other foreign leaders, he makes clear that he is bound by U.S. laws pertaining to that country “but I am not the U.S. government and I am not here to defend it.” (Comments start at 38:35)
Tillerson’s long and deep ties to Russia and to Putin will likely take center stage in any Senate confirmation hearings on his appointment, if it is officially confirmed. Tillerson’s links to Russia have taken on added significance in light of reports that the CIA believes that Russia intervened in the election on Trump’s behalf as well as previous reports of the unusual links between Trump and some of his staff and the Kremlin.
At the University of Texas appearance and at a separate speech to the Economic Club in Washington D.C. in 2015, Tillerson made comments that could be seen as ironic, given his candidacy for a top job in the Trump administration. In Texas he said, “The most important thing we require in our leaders is integrity. If you don’t have integrity you can’t be smart enough to overcome that.” At the Economic Club in 2015 Tillerson said his greatest concern about America is the escalating tenor and polarization of U.S. politics. “We need to tone things down and work together for America,” he said.
Asked if his frequent visits to Washington mean that he is seeking a job in government, Tillerson answered in jest “I’m not qualified.” He ridiculed administration officials who tell him he doesn’t understand “how things work around here”, despite the fact that he has been coming to the U.S. capital for 30 years to formulate policies.
On the issue of climate change, Tillerson, perhaps contrary to expectations, is a middle of the roader. While he claims that there is no scientific certainty that global warming will reach the levels predicted by many scientists, he does believe that climate change poses “a serious risk” for the future. The threat should be met with concrete steps, he said, but should also be balanced against other factors, including economic growth.
Highlighting the deep ties he cultivated in Exxon with the Arab world - which may worry some Israeli policymakers - Tillerson said that Exxon is the largest outside investor in Qatar and Abu Dhabi, possibly the largest investor in Saudi Arabia (and “certainly the largest taxpayer”) and is also investing heavily in Iraq and Kurdistan.