Trump Pick of ExxonMobil CEO for Secretary of State Would Lead to Corruption and Cronyism

Janet Redman of Oil Change International says we should feel no relief if Rex Tillerson were to divest all his shares and no longer head ExxonMobil

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Story Transcript

KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown. President-elect Donald Trump is expected to name the Chief Executive of Exxon Mobil Corporation as the country’s top diplomat. This is according to numerous news reports over the weekend. This appointment, should it be confirmed, would put in place an official with close ties to the Russian government. Now, Tillerson’s links with Russia — we’re talking about Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson here — his links with Russia came under fire from top lawmakers on Sunday, including by fellow Republicans. John McCain, the Senator from Arizona, told CBS, “It is a matter of grave concern that he has such a close personal relationship with Vladimir Putin, and obviously they’ve done enormous deals together.” Now that would color his approach to Vladimir Putin, and the Russian threat.

Others are also questioning not only Tillerson’s ties to Russia, but also the fossil fuel industry. With us to discuss this, we are joined by Janet Redman. She is the US Policy Director at Oil Change International. She’s also an Associate Fellow with the Climate Change Program at the Institute for Policy Studies. Janet, thank you so much for being here.

JANET REDMAN: Thanks for having me on.

KIM BROWN: In 2011, Exxon Mobil signed a deal with Rosneft, which is Russia’s largest state-owned oil company, for joint oil exploration and production, but since then, the companies have formed 10 joint ventures for projects in Russia. So, if Rex Tillerson is made Secretary of State, could there be a conflict of interest in regards to his oil business ties with Russia?

JANET REDMAN: Yes. There’s obviously a clear conflict of interest here with the fact that Rex Tillerson is at the helm of Exxon Mobil now for many years, having close ties with Putin and close ties with the Russian state oil company. Let’s be clear: as soon as Mr. Tillerson gets the job of Secretary of State, if he is so appointed and confirmed by the Senate, he’ll no longer work at Exxon Mobil, heading that operation, and he will have to divest his shares of Exxon Mobil. But that doesn’t mean that his friends and relatives won’t benefit from his close ties and relationships that already exist in Russia and other places around the world. In other countries, we would call that cronyism or corruption. So, we’re clear that should be the case here.

In particular, the special relationship between Russia, and in particular Putin and Tillerson, is of special interest, in part because right now Exxon has huge interests in the oil that’s sitting underneath Russia and Russian-controlled land, the oceans, in particular. At this time, Exxon’s having trouble pulling some of that oil out of the ground and realizing the super-extra-normal profits that they would otherwise benefit from because of the sanctions, of course, that the United States has in dealings with Russia because of their invasion of the Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.

So, right now, what the real conflict of interest is thinking about Rex Tillerson, who’s the head of a company who would benefit greatly if sanctions against Russia go away. That’s clearly putting Exxon’s interests, and potentially Russia’s interests, before US interests and our allies’ interests.

KIM BROWN: But yet Tillerson could be one of the few people elected — or selected, rather — for a major role in the Trump Administration to believe that human activity causes climate change. So, Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, was criticized by her promoting fracking across the globe, as well as pushing for more offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Would this possible appointment be any worse in terms of representing fossil fuel interests?

JANET REDMAN: I’m not sure that it could be any worse, to be honest. Let’s take a look at what climate denialism means in practice, as well as in rhetoric. So, potentially, yes, the CEO of Exxon thinks that climate change is real, that it’s human-caused and that, for example, maybe we need a carbon tax or some kind of regulation that puts a price on carbon. But then let’s look at the money and where the money is flowing. So, Rex Tillerson’s organization has spent millions of dollars in his time at Exxon Mobil supporting groups that are climate deniers. Just in 2015 alone, Exxon spent $2 million, giving to groups like ALEC and the American Enterprise Institute to counter action on climate.

Very clearly, Exxon Mobil has said, “We have the interests of our shareholders at heart when we make decisions around pulling fossil fuels out of the ground, not climate, not the American public,” and in particular right now, Exxon is suing groups who have accused Exxon of knowing the implications for the climate and for human safety of producing fossil fuels and producing oil. And instead of celebrating that understanding that climate change is really linked to pulling out and burning fossil fuels, the oil that they produce, instead, they’re taking those groups to court and trying to get them to stop talking about the real impacts of the fossil fuel regime.

KIM BROWN: Janet, one of the more troubling stories that came out in the latter part of last week and over the weekend was this story that members of the Trump transition team sent a letter to the Department of Energy asking for the names of federal employees who have attended climate change meetings or summits or conferences of that nature. What are your thoughts about that? I mean, as scary as Rex Tillerson could be as a potential Secretary of State, this inquisition or the groundwork of a possible inquisition of federal employees, especially at the Department of Energy who have attended climate change conferences, is a bit alarming.

JANET REDMAN: Absolutely. I mean, that is clearly stepping across any red line of keeping political interests outside of the bureaucracies and institutions that run our government. That’s absolutely unacceptable that there’d be a witch hunt because of people’s climate beliefs, because of people’s belief in the science, or because people are literally just carrying out and implementing the acts and legislation and regulations and rules that are handed down to them by the agencies for which they work.

But we need to be very careful about this, too, when we look at the Secretary of State because, of course, Rex Tillerson would be ultimately in charge of the negotiating team that goes to the UN Climate Summit every year. He would be in charge of our orientation towards the Paris Climate Agreement. So, if in other agencies we see this administration beginning a witch hunt for people that care about climate, are acting on climate, then we should assume the same thing will probably happen either publicly or quietly — as they tried to do in this case, quietly, behind the scenes — to root out champions of climate action and those that are really putting human safety, the American public interests in climate stability first and foremost.

KIM BROWN: Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who proposed eliminating the Department of Energy during his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2012, he has emerged as a leading candidate to head this exact agency under President-elect Donald Trump. This is according to a Trump transition official on Sunday. So, with Rick Perry being a possible appointment there, and former Oklahoma Attorney General and climate denier Scott Pruitt who has also been tapped to head up the EPA, are we seeing elections that are all about dismantling any regulation when it comes to fossil fuels?

JANET REDMAN: That’s exactly what we’re seeing. We’re seeing not only taking apart of the rules that would govern fossil fuels and our health and safety vis-à-vis climate change and pollution, we’re also seeing I think a real handover of the public resources — so our public lands, our public waters and the minerals beneath those public lands and water — our collective public safety being handed over to private interests, and in this particular case, fossil fuel interests. We need to be really careful not to just think about this as a climate problem and not to just think about this as a fossil fuel problem. But, more broadly, I think what we’re seeing here is a real degradation of democracy, whose interests these agencies work for in particular and how we are able as a citizenry, as a public, to voice our concerns, and make sure we hold accountable — and never, frankly, get appointed and pass through the nomination — these sets of clearly corporate interested individuals who are passing off public office in the name of their own pocket.

KIM BROWN: Well, Janet, going back to Tillerson as a possible choice for Secretary of State, does this raise a question of corporate versus nation interests as you just alluded to, so what does that say about Trump’s Administration picks? It is clearly an issue of corporate interests over the interests of the American people, at least from his preliminary slate of potential cabinet appointees.

JANET REDMAN: I think where he’s been really clear is that he believes in deal-making, in business deal-making in particular, and having close connections with people but not necessarily in the interests of the American public. He has selected people from multiple positions at this point and alluded to potential picks for other positions. People that literally have no policy, political, foreign policy, negotiating in a public-interest sense experience at all whatsoever. Rex Tillerson is just another in a long line of people who are not qualified for this job, the job that he is being eyeballed for.

Again, I think what we’re really seeing is, in a sense, crony capitalism. Trump is stacking the deck with business elites. It’s exactly the same people whose interests K Street lobbyists have been promoting for the past 4, 8, 12, 16 years. This is not draining the swamp. This is actually inviting Big Oil into the swamp, and really creating a dirty politics at the highest levels of this administration.

KIM BROWN: Janet Redman. She is the US Policy Director at Oil Change International. She’s also an Associate Fellow with the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies. Janet, we appreciate you joining us today. Thank you.

JANET REDMAN: Thanks very much for having me.

KIM BROWN: And thanks for watching The Real News Network.

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