Rex Tillerson: An Oligarch’s Dream at the State Department

AP Photo/Jon Gambrell

ExxonMobil CEO and chairman Rex W. Tillerson gives a speech at the annual Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition & Conference in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Monday, November 7, 2016.

If confirmed by the Senate, the next secretary of state will enter into the service of the second employer he has ever had in his life: the United States government. Since his graduation from the University of Texas in Austin, according to The New Yorker’s Steve Coll, Rex Tillerson has known only one boss (in aggregate): the shareholders of Exxon Mobil.

Already even Republicans are chafing against President-apparent Donald J. Trump’s pick of the oil giant’s CEO for the post of the nation’s top diplomat, on account of Tillerson’s close ties to Vladimir Putin, whose government is implicated by U.S. intelligence services in cyberattacks intended to tip the election toward Trump. If Putin and Trump aren’t quite locked in a bromance, it’s clear that Trump would like one.

Trump’s global business holdings, if maintained during his term in office, already amount to an unconstitutional conflict of interested, according to respected constitutional scholars. In the past, he has conducted business with Russian oligarchs, as when he staged the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, in a venue owned by Aras Agalarov, an oligarch said to be close to Putin. Trump subsequently sought to engage Agalarov in a Moscow building deal, according to Politico’s Michael Crowley.

When word of a prospective Tillerson nomination hit the internet, journalists and wags began wondering out loud about Trump’s own investments in the fossil-fuel sector. Although little is known of the full scope of Trump’s financial interests, it is known that he has investments in the company that is building the pipeline whose construction set off the Standing Rock protests.

But to focus on Trump’s interests in a single sector is to misunderstand the value of Tillerson in a Trump administration, a presidency that daily proves itself to be a clique of private capitalists convened to leverage the assets of the U.S. government in the service of private capital. Tillerson’s draw is not simply that he knows the ways of Big Oil—not a small thing—but that he’s close not only to Putin, but to the Russian oligarchy. Most notable among the deals Tillerson crafted on behalf of Exxon Mobil is one with the Russian firm Rosneft, which has been on hold since the imposition of sanctions against Russia for its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. A state-owned enterprise, Rosneft is run by the oligarch Igor Ivanovich Sechin. Essentially, to do business in Russia is to be in deep with the oligarchy.

So, let’s say you want to create an oligarchy of your own, say, in the United States. You have your favorite companies—perhaps your own and those of your cabinet friends who, like you, earned their millions and billions through privately-held corporations and entities. They’re all (with the exception of your secretary of state) people who hail from the opaque world of private capital, ill-disposed to transparency and regulation, who will back you up when you conduct the business of the U.S. government in the service of your own business interests—so long as you cut them in on the deal in some way.

To succeed in setting up your U.S. oligarchy, you’re going to need to be friendly with oligarchs in other major powers, since what you’re really aiming for is a global oligarchy run from the White House. Why wouldn’t you want a guy like Rex Tillerson as your secretary of state?

While Exxon Mobil—unlike Betsy DeVos’s Amway or Seth Mnuchin’s Dune Capital or Andy Puzder’s CKE Restaurants—is a is a publicly-traded company, it is a company like no other, and one whose executives see it, according to Coll, as “an independent, transnational corporate sovereign in the world, a power independent of the American government, one devoted firmly to shareholder interests and possessed of its own foreign policy.”

If you’re looking to build an oligarchy of your own, how cool would it be to have a guy running your foreign policy who’s accustomed to doing so in the interest of generating profits? And how much better for you would it be if that same guy knew “all the key players” in the oligarchies of the world, and had operational knowledge of the ways of successful oligarchies?

As I write, talking points from the Trump transition team lauding Tillerson’s accomplishments are circulating through the offices of GOP senators and members of Congress. (Politico’s Seung Min Kim got ahold of the document and published it here.)  Among them is the asserted fact that in a two-year period, Tillerson spent two-thirds of his time in Russia.

Unlike other of Trump’s controversial cabinet picks, Tillerson has the support of the GOP foreign policy establishment in the form of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Robert Gates. Noteworthy, however, is the fact both Rice and Gates are paid consultants of ExxonMobil.

In Trump’s selection of Tillerson, the flows the presumptive president envisions are likely not limited to those of oil. Imagine a spigot of money flowing, unfettered, from oligarch to oligarch, across the deserts, plains, seas and steppes. Factor in the politics of thuggery that have characterized the campaign run by the man poised to be the commander-in-chief.

We are perilously close to the demise of the republic. Those who refuse to oppose this nomination vigorously will have much to answer for.

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