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Jan Lee headshot

Conflict of Interest Begone? Rex Tillerson Forfeits Control of $240M to Be Secretary of State

By Jan Lee

There’s been no lack of controversy over President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet picks. His nomination of Scott Pruitt (who had been branded a "climate-change skeptic") as head of the Environmental Protection Agency and failed U.S. District Court judge nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, has raised a fair amount of push-back from environmental organizations and civil rights groups who see his top executive choices as alarming at best.

But none of his announcements (save for his perennial tweets) have garnered as much media attention as Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon.

Trump's Dec. 13 appointment of Tillerson as secretary of state left a lot of questions in its wake, mostly around why a CEO of the world’s largest oil explorer with hundreds of millions of dollars tied up in deferred shares would take a position in the Trump administration.

In agreement with Exxon, Tillerson will cede control of about a quarter of a billion dollars in deferred compensation, which Exxon will place in a trust on his behalf. He will also sell some 600,000 shares and leave behind $4.1 million in cash bonuses in an effort to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest in the appointment. He’ll also lose another $3 million in the payout. All of these arrangements will only take place if he passes muster at the Congressional hearings.

But for many members of the Senate taking part in Wednesday’s hearings, Tillerson’s strange financial decisions were the least of their concern. Tillerson’s views on climate change and relationship with Exxon, Russia’s potential and future relationship to the new administration, and Trump’s habitual tweets were among the senators’ biggest concerns.

That’s not to say the nominee's answers were clear-cut. After Sen. Tim Kaine asked him to explain why Exxon had attempted to deny that man-made climate change was possible after its own scientists discovered the phenomena in the 1970s, Tillerson evaded addressing the topic. The exchange became slightly heated.

“Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question, or are you refusing to answer my question?” Kaine asked.

“A little of both,” Tillerson retorted.

As to the concept of climate change, Tillerson was slightly less evasive. He said he came to the conclusion at one point that global warming does exist. But he went on to claim that while greenhouse gasses “are having an effect … our ability to predict that effect is very limited.”

As for climate talks stemming from the Paris agreement, he took a surprising stance in the Wednesday hearing: "We're better served by being at that table than leaving that table."

When it came to Russia, he said that he doubted that the two countries would ever be friends. “[Our] value systems are starkly different,” said the former recipient of Russia’s Order of Friendship. He also objected to Putin being characterized as a war criminal, and was less than forthcoming about his stance when it came to the disappearance of dissidents in Russia.

He was equally nebulous when it came to his role in Exxon’s business dealings. But when asked whether he would recommend sanctions against Russia if Exxon’s business dealings were being impacted by Russia, the former CEO stated that his commitment was to the United States. “If confirmed, I only serve in the interest of the American people.”

When it came to his relationship with his boss and his personal view of Trump’s use of Twitter to convey controversial views and what some perceived as personal attacks, Tillerson’s response was telling. “I don’t think I’ll be telling the boss how to communicate with the American people.”

Whatever the outcome of the Senate hearings, Tillerson will have a ways to go some to garner the ear and the support of many in the public arena. On Tuesday evening, environmental activists made their view of Trump’s latest controversial pick clear, projecting it on the side of the U.S. State Department building in Washington, D.C.

“The Secretary of State is charged with representing U.S. interests around the globe. Rex Tillerson has no diplomatic or government experience and a long track record of putting Exxon’s profits ahead of U.S. interests,” said Naomi Ages, a climate liability campaigner for Greenpeace USA. The organization, which was joined by other environmental NGOs in its protest, is calling on Congress to reject the former Exxon CEO’s nomination.

As with many of the president-elect’s earlier picks, however, Tillerson comes to the table with something that Trump -- a businessman by career -- seems to value: inside understanding of what it takes to make money and make economically- and politically-viable policies.

Whether that’s necessarily a great combination for a public servant with the power to affect human input to climate change and civil rights is a question that this Senate, with all of its healthy skepticism, may be unwilling to address.

Image credit: Tim Aubry/Greenpeace

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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