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The questions Rex Tillerson must answer to become secretary of state

Russian President Vladimir Putin presents Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson with a medal in St. Petersburg in 2012. An aide to Putin praised President-elect Donald Trump’s choice of Tillerson as his nominee for secretary of state.
Russian President Vladimir Putin presents Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson with a medal in St. Petersburg in 2012. An aide to Putin praised President-elect Donald Trump’s choice of Tillerson as his nominee for secretary of state. Sputnik, Kremlin Pool

U.S. senators – Republicans as well as Democrats – plan to grill Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump’s secretary of state pick. They had better. The Exxon Mobil CEO should have to pass muster on some crucial questions to become the nation’s chief diplomat.

One is Tillerson’s close ties with Russia, which the CIA says tried to tip the election in Trump’s favor. Tillerson would be another friend of Vladimir Putin in Trump’s inner circle but would be the first who received the Order of Friendship from the Kremlin.

Another is Tillerson’s career with the world’s largest oil company. While he isn’t a skeptic of man-made climate change like Trump, Exxon is accused of trying to bury scientific evidence of global warming.

Given Trump’s lack of foreign policy knowledge, this is one of his most consequential Cabinet picks. He needs a secretary of state who knows the world of diplomacy and can curb his shoot-from-the-hip impulses.

Tillerson, however, personifies some of the worst trends in Trump’s Cabinet nominees. Too many of his appointees are from Wall Street and corporate board rooms.

Trump appears not to understand the importance of separating his business interests from the national interest. Tillerson would go into office with a ready-made conflict of interest. Exxon signed a deal, which could be worth tens of billions of dollars, with the Russian state oil company to drill in Siberia. That deal, however, is frozen by U.S. sanctions – which Tillerson has criticized – imposed after Putin’s regime annexed Crimea and started its shadow war in Ukraine.

What’s good for Exxon is not necessarily good for America. Where will Tillerson’s loyalties lie? Investors answered that question by driving up Exxon’s stock price by nearly 2 percent on Tuesday, a bump that, based on the 2.6 million-plus shares owned by Tillerson, according to Nasdaq, added some $9.4 million to his personal net worth.

Trump and others backing Tillerson say he would make great deals for America. But the post also means standing up for our values and for human rights.

“The next secretary of state must be someone who views the world with moral clarity, is free of potential conflicts of interest, has a clear sense of America’s interests and will be a forceful advocate for America’s foreign policy goals,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, which will hold the confirmation hearings.

If senators conclude Tillerson does not meet that standard, they should not be afraid to reject his nomination and force Trump to find someone better.

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