Guest Opinion: Tillerson is Trump’s next test

The San Diego Union-Tribune
Dec. 14
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Presidents have a long history of tapping people from the business world for big jobs. Sometimes it works out very well — President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1934 selection of “American Agriculturist” publisher Henry Morgenthau Jr. to be treasury secretary led directly to acclaimed efforts to help fund the military, to resettle European Jews and to create what eventually became the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Sometimes it is a debacle — President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 choice of Ford Motor Co. President Robert McNamara to be defense secretary went haywire when McNamara misjudged what was happening in Vietnam and later urged President Lyndon Johnson to escalate the U.S. war effort to disastrous effect.

Now Donald Trump has gone this route by tapping ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state. Will he be closer to a Morgenthau or a McNamara? That’s one question. Here’s another: Will he even be confirmed by the Senate? Maybe not.

The argument that Tillerson is not qualified to be secretary of state for lack of relevant experience falls apart quickly. Steve Coll of The New Yorker wrote a 2012 book about ExxonMobil that depicted the energy giant as akin to a sovereign state, establishing relationships with leaders of dozens of nations, with Tillerson at the helm — without the scandal and geopolitical meddling often associated with multinational corporations. Of all the finalists to be secretary of state — including Mitt Romney — Tillerson got the most glowing endorsements from the most respected foreign-policy mavens. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who oversaw the end of the Cold War, and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who cleaned up the messes left by Donald Rumsfeld, urged the president-elect to choose Tillerson.

But the argument that Tillerson’s long, close relationship with Russia and dictator Vladimir Putin may disqualify him for the job of America’s top diplomat cannot be dismissed. While Tillerson may sell his shares in ExxonMobil, can he readily put the nation’s interests ahead of the corporate giant he has worked for his entire life, which has billions invested in Russian projects? Remember, ExxonMobil opposed sanctions against Russia for bullying neighbors because it was bad for business.

Friday’s Washington Post report that the CIA believes that Russia interfered in the presidential election to try to get Trump elected makes Tillerson’s history with Putin even more toxic.

Tillerson may be so dazzling in confirmation hearings that he sweeps away doubts as to his suitability. But it is also possible to imagine a scenario in which Democratic senators such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders turn his nomination into a proxy vote to protest what’s happened this year: Hillary Clinton losing the presidency despite winning nearly 3 million more votes and Russia’s alleged interference in the election. They could easily find allies in opposing Tillerson among Senate Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who oppose Trump’s interest in normalizing U.S. relations with a nation McCain says is led by “a thug, bully and a murderer.” There’s also this: Senators of both parties may want to send an early message to Trump that he needs to respect their power.

Yes, Donald Trump’s political winning streak has been a long one. Tillerson is going to test that, more than any other Trump nominee.