Trump's secretary of state pick Rex Tillerson: Oilman, Eagle Scout, 'friend of Vladimir'

To understand Rex Tillerson, newly nominated for secretary of state, it's worth considering the two tent poles of his life. One is his job as CEO of ExxonMobil; the other institution is the Boy Scouts of America.

'Always an Eagle Scout,' former Boy Scouts exec says of contentious secretary of state pick

ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson was named Donald Trump's nominee for the high-profile role of secretary of state on Tuesday. While he has years of business acumen, the 64-year-old lacks diplomatic experience. (Jon Gambrell/The Associated Press)

To understand Rex Tillerson, a man whose close ties with Russia could doom his confirmation for the secretary of state job, it's worth considering two tent poles of his life.

One is his job as CEO of ExxonMobil, the oil firm he insists is "not an American company," but more like a sovereign entity with its own non-White-House-conforming foreign policy, according to the book Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power.

The other is the Boy Scouts of America (BSA).

Tillerson, who has worked at Exxon for 41 years, is a proud Eagle Scout, the highest-ranking designation in the scouting program. The father of four is also a former national BSA president.

In speeches, he has been known to drop in references to the Boy Scout's Oath, the first two virtues of which are to be "trustworthy" and "loyal" — attributes president-elect Donald Trump prizes for his cabinet.

A former Boy Scouts executive who worked with Tillerson called the burly Texan a "brilliant pick" for secretary of state.

"Once an Eagle Scout, always an Eagle Scout," says Rick Cronk. "The principles of scouting are part of his character. Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, it's there forever … and 'thoughtful' is the adjective that comes to mind for Rex."

Tillerson would be a "crystal clear" negotiator, Cronk says, and can be "very firm" when he needs to be.

Business acumen

There's another quality to Tillerson that might explain Trump's decision to pick a 64-year-old with no diplomatic experience for the nation's top diplomatic job.

He's the head of a major oil company that has global interests and has conducted global business with senior energy officials around the globe. Trump admires that.- Thomas Graham, Russian and Eurasian affairs expert

The native of Wichita Falls, Texas, who speaks with a twang, is a natural negotiator. His deal-making prowess, including lucrative oil exploration in Russia, may have impressed Trump, says Thomas Graham, a senior fellow with Yale University's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.

"Trump is a businessman; Tillerson is a businessman," Graham says. "He's the head of a major oil company that has global interests and has conducted global business with senior energy officials around the globe. Trump admires that."

Exxon's revenues were $32.5 billion in 2014. If the company were its own state, its GDP would exceed that of most countries in the world.

It's perhaps little surprise, then, to hear that Trump was impressed by their two meetings at Trump Tower in Manhattan.

Russian relations

Graham, who specializes on Russian and Eurasian affairs, says Tillerson is an "attractive choice" in a diplomatic sense because his selection "fits in with the narrative" about Trump's desire to mend relations with Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship in 2013, a decoration honouring foreign dignitaries. (Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti via Associated Press)

In Moscow, Tillerson's powerful connections extend to the top. Russian President Vladimir Putin has awarded him the Order of Friendship, a decoration honouring foreign dignitaries.

Tillerson has known Putin since 1999 and, with the exception of Henry Kissinger, has had the most "interactive time" with the Russian president out of any American, according to the Wall Street Journal.

That has not been a selling point on Capitol Hill.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio said in a statement Tuesday that he had "serious concerns" about Tillerson. His remarks came two days after Rubio tweeted: "Being a 'friend of Vladimir' is not an attribute I am hoping for from a Secretary of State."

Questions have arisen about whether installing Tillerson could lead to an easing of U.S. sanctions, which were imposed against Russia in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea. That would potentially unfreeze billions of dollars worth of Exxon drilling projects.

Tillerson opposed the economic sanctions, telling the Associated Press in 2014 that he found them ineffective.

And while it may have been fair game to ignore the personal and corporate problems of a country's human-rights record if fulfilling business interests, that is less likely to fly for a secretary of state — no matter how much geopolitical experience he brings to the table from striking deals in Iraq, Qatar and Nigeria.

'Will he be forceful enough?'

The fact that Tillerson has no public office or diplomatic experience could create some serious challenges, says Mike Schroeder, director of the Global Governance, Politics and Security Program at American University.

He warns that "business deals may not be exactly like diplomatic negotiations," which can have shifting or "amorphous" national interests lacking a clear bottom line, rather than existing in a vacuum.

A diplomatic deal in Russia might have a strong ripple effect in the security realm in Syria or Iran, for example, due to how security interests are entwined.

Senator Marco Rubio said in a statement Tuesday that he has 'serious concerns' about Tillerman's nomination, adding that he'd like to see someone 'free of potential conflicts of interest.' (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Schroeder also wonders whether Tillerson can compete with the "diplomatic gravitas" of a Trump cabinet that appears to be heavy with former military generals.

"Will he be forceful enough to give the State Department a voice in the room?"

Dissenting views

Despite their shared business backgrounds, Tillerson doesn't see eye-to-eye with Trump on everything. He has supported free trade, for example, though that's not an unusual position for someone heading a major multinational.

James Mattis, left, Michael Flynn, centre, and John Kelly: former U.S. generals who have been named as Trump's picks for cabinet-level positions (Associated Press)

In another break, he acknowledges climate change is real. Trump, on the other hand, has tweeted the phenomenon was "created by and for the Chinese" for business interests.

Tillerson has also expressed support for a carbon tax to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

And an indication of his stance on gay rights emerged in 2013, when the Boy Scouts of America voted to lift the ban on gay scouts. Serving on the executive board at the time, Tillerson was reportedly instrumental in that push.

But his nomination comes amid deep American distrust of Russia, aggravated by reports from U.S. spy agencies that Russian hackers meddled with the Nov. 8 elections.

High-profile Republican Senators Rubio, John McCain and Lindsey Graham all oppose his nomination, citing the Russian connection, and the foreign relations committee will likely subject him to tough questioning during his nomination hearing.

The numbers may also not be in Tillerson's favour.

The Republicans have a thin 52-48 majority in the Senate. If all the Democrats (and the two independents who caucus with them) deny Tillerson as the pick, it would only take three dissenting Republicans to end his chances.

Prominent Republicans who endorsed the pick include former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and James Baker as well as former secretary of defence Robert Gates, former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, former vice-president Dick Cheney, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Newt Gingrich.

Trump's transition team also collected Republican praise for Tillerson from former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Oklahoma senator Jim Inhofe, Georgia senator Johnny Isakson and Texas congressman Michael Burgess.


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong