Unnamed sources with Trump’s transition team told the New York Times, Washington Post, and other outlets over the weekend that Tillerson would likely be nominated as secretary of state. Almost immediately, the oil executive, who has no prior experience in public service, faced scrutiny for his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin awarded Tillerson Russia’s Order of Friendship, one of the highest honors that country gives to foreign citizens, in 2013.
Tillerson has a long history of doing business, and making friends, in Russia. A lifetime Exxon employee, he was president in 1998 of Exxon Neftegas Limited, a consortium of oil companies from multiple nations which collectively pursued oil production on Russia's Sakhalin Island and elsewhere.
When Tillerson became CEO of the company in 2006, he continued to pursue business relationships with Russia, whose oil resources are largely controlled by the government there. In 2011, Tillerson signed a deal that granted ExxonMobil access to Russian Arctic oil resources in exchange for giving a Russian state oil company, OAO Rosneft, opportunities to invest in various ExxonMobil projects, according to the Wall Street Journal.
ExxonMobile declared in a 2015 SEC filing that it had suspended its business in the country in compliance with international sanctions against Russia after its invasion of Crimea. SEC filings claimed the sanctions were costing the company $1 billion, and it had lobbied against those sanctions, according to disclosure forms reported by the Wall Street Journal.
“We always encourage the people who are making those decisions to consider the very broad collateral damage of who are they really harming with sanctions,” Tillerson said at ExxonMobil's annual meeting in 2014, as quoted by the Wall Street Journal.
As the head of the State Department, Tillerson would be charged with enforcing U.S. sanctions against governments, organizations and individuals worldwide, including those that have cost ExxonMobil dearly. Prominent Republican senators, including Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), have expressed concern over Tillerson’s ties to Putin. Anonymous sources familiar with their thinking told Politico that McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) are likely to mount “aggressive opposition” to Tillerson should he be nominated.
Trump, for his part, has defended Tillerson’s ties to Russia as good business.
“To me, a great advantage is he knows many of the players, and he knows them well,” Trump told Fox News' Chris Wallace in an interview that aired Sunday. “He does massive deals in Russia. He does massive deals for the company—not for himself—for the company.”
ExxonMobile has also faced harsh criticism, and even legal action, after an InsideClimate News investigation revealed the company had for decades funded pro-oil think tanks and other groups in order to sow doubt about the state of climate science—contrary to its own scientists’ research.
That led attorneys general in Massachusetts, New York and elsewhere to initiate investigations into ExxonMobile for possible financial fraud. Under Tillerson’s leadership, the company sued New York Attorney General Eric Scneiderman and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey in order to stop what it called politically-motivated attacks.
Tillerson would be America's representative in international efforts to combat climate change, including on the Paris Agreement, which Trump attacked frequently on the campaign trail.
ExxonMobile supports that agreement and now publicly supports the veracity of the science behind climate change, as the Washington Post pointed out. Tillerson has personally said that the threat of climate change is "real" and "serious," contrary to Trump, who has called it a hoax invented by the Chinese government in order to disadvantage American manufacturers.
Tillerson is scheduled to retire from ExxonMobile in March, equipped with a $69.5 million pension plan, according to the Washington Post. He would join what is likely to be the wealthiest cabinet in American history. Trump's other cabinet nominees so far include billionaires Wilbur Ross, Steve Mnuchin and Betsy DeVos, and multi-millionaire Linda McMahon.
Tillerson currently holds $151 million in ExxonMobile stock, according to the Wall Street Journal, and experts say he would have to divest that stock in order to take a job in Trump's cabinet.