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Rex Tillerson Represents All That is Wrong with Trump’s Incoming Administration

Rex Tillerson Represents All That is Wrong with Trump’s Incoming Administration

Tillerson’s business-first background, close ties with Russia, and complete lack of experience in public service make him unfit to serve as U.S. secretary of state.

Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson arrives for a meeting with Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE). (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rex Tillerson, nominee for U.S. secretary of state, arrives for a meeting with Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE). (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

In the weeks leading up to the U.S. presidential election, President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign touted a common theme: the need to “drain the swamp” and rid Washington of wealthy elites and pay-to-play politics.1 Trump’s campaign lambasted Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her husband President Bill Clinton for their wealth and supposed status as Washington insiders. In contrast, Trump presented himself as a man of the people, the “blue-collar billionaire,” who shared ordinary American’s frustration with the country’s ever-increasing wealth inequality.2 Furthermore, Trump sought to establish himself as the candidate who would pursue strong-armed tactics against foreign threats.3

So imagine the surprise when, less than one month after being elected to the highest office in the land, Trump began to assemble a cabinet filled with individuals who, together, are worth more than one-third of all U.S. households combined.4 Trump’s cabinet, if confirmed, will make up the richest administration in modern U.S. history.5  Furthermore, several members of Trump’s inner circle, including Trump’s pick for National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, and his transition team advisor, Paul Manafort, have close ties with Russia, whose government waged a covert attack on our electoral system in order to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.6 The Russian hacking has been called “an act of war” and the “political equivalent of 9/11.”7

No cabinet nominee better embodies all that is wrong with the incoming administration than Trump’s choice for U.S. secretary of state, former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson.8 To protect America’s interests in the world, Congress should deny Tillerson’s confirmation as secretary of state.

His excessive wealth represents the hypocrisy of Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp”

Tillerson’s net worth is estimated to be upwards of $150 million dollars.9 Last year alone, he pocketed $24.3 million—that is more than 400 times the median U.S. household income.10 At the same time, he has amassed more than 2.6 million shares in ExxonMobil stock worth just less than $245 million.11

As a result, Tillerson was able to donate more than $76,000 to candidates, outside groups and super political action committees, or super PACs, in the 2016 elections, and more than $480,000 in total to politicians and advocacy groups since 1992.12 Under Tillerson’s leadership, Exxon Mobil donated more than $2 million to political campaigns and groups in the 2016 election cycle, and spent more than $8.8 million lobbying the federal government last year.13 Exxon and Exxon Mobil have given more than $19 million to candidates, super PACs, and outside groups since 1990.14 Among those who have benefitted from Tillerson and Exxon Mobil’s giving are Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), John Barrasso (R-WY), and Cory Gardner (R-CO), all of whom sit on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee responsible for confirming his appointment.15 Exxon Mobil has donated nearly $29,000 to Rubio, more than $20,000 to Barrasso, and an excess of $25,000 to Gardner over the course of these politicians’ respective careers.16

It is no secret that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision has changed the rules of political campaigns and ushered in political contributions in amounts never before seen.17 In politics today, money often wins elections; those who pay the piper call the tune.18 Given this new reality, how can committee members who received campaign donations from Exxon Mobil objectively evaluate the company’s former CEO on his fitness for the office of secretary of state? In order to ensure that America’s interests are protected, it is of utmost importance that Tillerson’s nomination receive the highest form of scrutiny.

His unusually close ties to Russia raise serious questions over how U.S. interests will be represented abroad

Like Trump himself, Tillerson has demonstrated an unusually close relationship with Russia and its leader, President Vladimir Putin. Their relationship spans almost 20 years and has proven extremely lucrative for both men.19 During his many trips to Russia, Tillerson has orchestrated billion-dollar deals between Exxon Mobil and Rosneft, the Russian government-owned oil giant.20 In 2013, Putin presented Tillerson with Russia’s “order of friendship award,” one of the highest honors the Russian government can bestow upon a foreigner.21 In December, Putin praised Trump’s decision to nominate Tillerson as secretary of state, citing Tillerson’s longtime dealings with the country.22 Putin is more than just Tillerson’s business ally: Tillerson and Putin have been described as “personal friends.”23 Indeed, Tillerson “has had more interactive time with Vladimir Putin than probably any other American with the exception of Henry Kissinger.”24

It is perhaps not surprising then that Tillerson has been a vocal critic of the Russian sanctions that President Barack Obama imposed in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine in 2014. To date, Russia’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine is estimated to have claimed the lives of more than 9,000 people.25 Tillerson claims, for example, that the sanctions cause “broad collateral damage,” which for him, means lost profits.26 Exxon Mobil is estimated to have lost close to $1 billion on account of the sanctions. If they were lifted under the Trump administration, the value of Exxon Mobil stock would increase dramatically.27

In January 2017, Tillerson promised to divest his personal funds from Exxon Mobil. He announced that, if confirmed, he would receive an advanced payout of his more than 2 million company shares, paid to an independent trust barred from investing in the company.28 Tillerson has also promised to sell an additional 611,000 shares he already owns, worth more than $54 million.29 Still, Tillerson’s receipt of a $180 million retirement package from Exxon Mobil—just weeks before his confirmation hearing—raises serious questions over whether, as secretary of state, Tillerson would put the country first over the interests of the company to which he not only owes his immense personal wealth, but also his entire career.30

Tillerson’s lack of civil service or foreign policy experience make him unfit to serve as America’s top diplomat

In the past, Trump has cited Tillerson’s years of business dealings with foreign governments in making the case that he is uniquely qualified to fill the position of U.S. secretary of state.31 But experience in foreign business dealings does not a diplomat make. Being secretary of state is more than just negotiating with foreign governments. The nation’s top diplomat also “delivers and defines the aid, the resources that the United States provides in that country, whether it’s support for local human rights groups or democracy organizers or whether it’s through USAID, new technologies to help free speech and free organizing in authoritarian countries.”32 Tillerson has no experience in this area; rather, he has never pursued anything other than the bottom line. A civil servant must be focused on pursing the best policies for the American public, not profit yielding. Of course, there are instances where the policy that is the most profitable or economical, also proves to be the most beneficial to the public interest. At other times, however, they are in direct opposition.

The New York and Massachusetts attorney generals, for example, are currently investigating Tillerson’s company, Exxon Mobil, over allegations that it intentionally downplayed the risks of climate change to the public and lied to its investors about how the company could be affected by these risks.33 Exxon Mobil is alleged to have advanced climate-denying research to benefit the oil industry for many years—thereby putting the company’s bottom line ahead of the public good. The backlash against Exxon Mobil’s alleged efforts has been compared to past campaigns against tobacco companies that, for decades, downplayed the risks of smoking.34 Tillerson has called the charges “pretty unfounded, without any substance at all.”35

Those knowledgeable in foreign relations matters remain doubtful that Tillerson can break away from his business-centered mentality to pursue diplomatic solutions that are in the best interest of the American people. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) for example, has voiced “concerns” over Tillerson’s nomination, due to Tillerson’s business interests and ties to Russia.36

The only way to ensure that Tillerson’s background receives the proper level of scrutiny is for members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—including those who have received political funds from either Tillerson or his company—to step up, do their jobs, and ask the tough questions. They must require Tillerson to describe in great detail his ties to Russia, and provide clear assurances that his past business dealings with foreign nations will not cloud his judgement in making the difficult choices as secretary of state.

Moreover, they must demand that he lay out the particulars that qualify him to serve as America’s top diplomat. To these ends, members of Congress should push back against claims that Tillerson’s experience in closing deals with foreign companies and governments prepares him to act as secretary of state. To be sure, his years of private business dealings do not qualify him to act as a public servant on the world stage. Rather, as journalist Steve Coll said in an interview, Tillerson’s career as an Exxon Mobil executive has primed him to make “decisions on the basis of what’s best for … shareholders not what’s best for the United States.”37


There is too much at stake for this country to have a secretary of state who is unfit to serve. The recent terrorist attack in Berlin, continued humanitarian crisis in Syria, and revived tensions related to the West Bank settlements, emphasize that foreign diplomacy and strategy will remain a sizable challenge in the years to come. The U.S. secretary of state should be someone with extensive foreign policy experience, not a multimillionaire former oil executive who is likely to place the interests of his business allies, including Russia, over those of the American people.

Danielle Root is the Voting Rights Manager at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.



  1. Isaac Arnsdorf, Josh Dawsy, and Daniel Lippman, “Will ‘drain the swamp’ be Trump’s first broken promise?” Politico, December 23, 2016, available at
  2. Jill Colvin, “Donald Trump a ‘blue-collar billionaire’ with a lot of money,” U.S. News & World Report, July 18, 2016, available at
  3. Tim Lister, “Is bombing the s*** out of ISIS a strategy?” CNN, November 15, 2016, available at
  4. Lucy Pasha-Robinson, “Donald Trump’s Cabinet are richer than a third of US households combined,” The Independent, December 16, 2016, available at
  5. Jim Tankersley and Ana Swanson, “Donald Trump is assembling the richest administration in modern American history,” The Washington Post, November 30, 2016, available at
  6. AM Joy, “Trump Advisors with Russian Ties,” MSNBC, December 11, 2016, available at; Olivia Nuzzi and Asawin Suebsaeng, “Paul Manafort is Back and Advising Donald Trump on Cabinet Picks,” The Daily Beast, November 30, 2016, available at
  7. Dan Bloom, “Senator John McCain brands Russia’s US election ‘hack’ ‘an act of war,’” Mirror, December 30, 2016, available at Politico Staff, “Morell calls Russia’s meddling in U.S. elections ‘political equivalent of 9/11,’” Politico, December 12, 2016, available at
  8. Steven Mufson, “Trump picks ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state,” The Washington Post, December 13, 2016, available at
  9. The Today Show, “Rex Tillerson could face rocky confirmation due to ties with Russia,” December 13, 2016, available at
  10. Based on 2015 median household income of $56,516. Tami Luhby, “The middle class gets a big raise … finally!” CNN Money, September 13, 2016, available at Equilar, “The New York Times 200 Highest Paid CEOs,” available at (last accessed January 2017).
  11. Stephen Gandel, “3 Things That Could Happen to Rex Tillerson’s $245 Million Exxon Windfall,” Fortune, December 14, 2016, available at 
  12. Open Secrets, “Trump Administration: Appointee Giving,” available at (last accessed January 2017).
  13. Open Secrets, “Exxon Mobil: Profile for 2016 Election Cycle,” available at (last accessed December 2016); Open Secrets, “Exxon Mobil: Client Profile: Summary, 2016,” available at (last accessed January 2017).
  14. Ibid.
  15. United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, “Committee Members,” available at (last accessed December 2016).
  16. Open Secrets, “Exxon Mobil: Among Federal Candidates, 2016 Cycle,” available at (last accessed January 2017).
  17. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).
  18. Domenico Montanaro, Rachel Wellford, and Simone Pathe, “Money is pretty good predictor of who will win elections,” PBS Newshour, November 11, 2014, available at Bob Biersack, “The Big Spender Always Wins?,” Open Secrets, available at (last accessed January 2017). See also, Fredreka Schouten, “How Trump won by spending half as much money as Clinton,” USA Today, November 10, 2016, available at
  19. Sonam Sheth, “A timeline of Rex Tillerson’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin,” Business Insider, December 14, 2016, available at
  20. In 2011 for example, Exxon and Rosneft signed a lucrative oil deal worth $3.2 million. In exchange for granting Exxon permission to develop offshore oil fields in the Russian Arctic, Rosneft received stakes in a number of Exxon’s US-based projects. Ibid.
  21. Matt Egan, Julia Horowitz, and Chris Isidore, “Behind the deep ties between Exxon’s Rex Tillerson and Russia,” CNN Money, December 11, 2016, available at; Rebecca Shabad, “Why Russia honored Trump’s secretary of state pick,” CBS News, December 13, 2016, available at
  22. Alec Luhn, “Russia praises possible Trump pick Rex Tillerson’s ‘highly professional manner,’” The Guardian, December 12, 2016, available at
  23. CNN Newsroom, “Transcripts: Trump to Pick ExxonMobil CEO as Secretary of State; Battle for Aleppo; VOA Board to Be Replaced by President-Appointed CEO; Deadly Crackdown in the Philippines. Aired 12-1a ET,” CNN, December 13, 2016, available at
  24. CBS News, “Who is Rex Tillerson, Exxon chief and Donald Trump’s top secretary of state candidate?,” December 10, 2016, available at
  25. Nick Cumming-Bruce, “Death Toll in Ukraine Conflict Hits 9,160, U.N. Says,” The New York Times, March 3, 2016, available at
  26. Henry C. Jackson, Josh Dawsey, and Eliana Johnson, “ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson emerging as frontrunner for secretary of state,” Politico, December 9, 2016, available at
  27. Matt Egan, “Exxon would win if Tillerson works to lift Russian sanctions,” CNN Money, December 13, 2016, available at
  28. Bernard Condon and David Koenig, “Tillerson Leaving Exxon with $180 Million Retirement Package,” ABC News, January 4, 2017, available at; Jethro Mullen, “Rex Tillerson to put Exxon nest egg in a trust over conflict of interest concerns,” CNN Money, January 4, 2017, available at
  29. Ibid.
  30. Condon and Koenig, “Tillerson Leaving Exxon with $180 Million Retirement Package.” Tillerson has worked for Exxon his entire career. Fresh Air, “How Running ExxonMobil Did (And Didn’t) Prepare Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State,” NPR, December 20, 2016, available at
  31. Peter Nicholas and Carol E. Lee, “Donald Trump Chooses Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State,” The Wall Street Journal, December 13, 2016, available at
  32. Fresh Air, “How Running ExxonMobil Did (And Didn’t) Prepare Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State.”
  33. Justin Gillis and Clifford Krauss, “Exxon Mobil Investigated for Possible Climate Change Lies by New York Attorney General,” The New York Times, November 5, 2015, available at Attorney General Maura Healey, “AGO’s Exxon Investigation,” available at (last accessed January 2017); Kiah Collier and Jim Malewitz, “Everything you need to know about Exxon Mobil climate change probes,” The Texas Tribune, December 11, 2016, available at
  34. Ibid.
  35. Paul Barrett and Matthew Philips, “Can ExxonMobil Be Found Liable for Misleading the Public on Climate Change?” Bloomberg Businessweek, September 7, 2016, available at
  36. Mark Hensch, “McCain raises ‘concerns’ on Tillerson’s Russia links,” The Hill, December 29, 2016, available at
  37. Fresh Air, “How Running ExxonMobil Did (And Didn’t) Prepare Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State.”

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Danielle Root

Former Director, Voting Rights and Access to Justice