Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state, has expressed skepticism over the United States’ sanctions against Russia, as his company stands to reap enormous profits if they are lifted.
As secretary of state, Tillerson would play a major role in shaping the United States’ relationship with Russia going forward, and deciding whether to lift the sanctions put in place in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Lifting the sanctions would give Russia more economic power.
Tillerson, who has run the world’s largest oil company since 2006, questioned the efficacy of sanctions multiple times since they were imposed by President Barack Obama’s administration nearly three years ago.
According to The New York Times, Tillerson said in 2014 that his company “generally” does not support economic sanctions “because we don’t find them to be effective unless they are very well implemented comprehensibly, and that’s a very hard thing to do.” On a separate occasion, he said the company was looking forward to the sanctions being lifted.
And as Bloomberg notes, he also made many visits to the White House as the sanctions were being imposed and reportedly questioned whether the restrictions would give Exxon Mobil’s European competitors an advantage over U.S.-based companies.
Exxon Mobil has a huge interest in ending the sanctions, which put a halt to lucrative projects in the country ― the company has claimed the sanctions cost it up to $1 billion in revenue. In the meantime, Exxon Mobil and Tillerson have maintained strong ties with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. The company has already said it plans to return to its drilling project in the Russian Arctic once the sanctions are lifted.
Tillerson was a major driver of that relationship, rising up through the Exxon ranks by overseeing the company’s Russian business interests. He’s personally negotiated deals with Putin and in 2013 was awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship award. On Monday, the Kremlin praised Trump for selecting Tillerson to lead the State Department, noting the executive “carries out his duties in a highly professional way.”
Tillerson also has a personal stake in Exxon’s success. According to The New York Times, Tillerson owns $218 million in Exxon Mobil stock.
Several lawmakers have expressed concern over Tillerson’s ties to Russia, calling for them to be a focal point in his Senate confirmation process.
Despite Tillerson’s past pushback, the likely elimination of the sanctions against Russia won’t fall solely on him. It’s the Treasury Department that ultimately administers and enforces sanctions.
Trump has expressed skepticism over the sanctions in the past, saying in July he “would be looking into” lifting the sanctions and recognizing Crimea as a Russian territory. Reince Priebus, Trump’s incoming chief of staff, said Tuesday that the president-elect would not commit to keeping the sanctions in place.
“Here’s what I would tell you: If you are going to have sanctions in place, they need to be enforced. That I can tell you for sure is something he believes in, and as far as where that product goes next, you have to just wait and see,” Priebus said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
The Associated Press noted earlier this month that Russia views Trump as a gateway to eased sanctions. Putin has repeatedly praised Trump, something Trump took heat for ― but brushed off ― throughout the general election.
“If [Putin] says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him,” Trump said at an NBC forum in November. “I’ve already said, he is really very much of a leader. I mean, you can say, ‘Oh, isn’t that a terrible thing’ ― the man has very strong control over a country.”
After investigating Russia’s involvement in the U.S. presidential election, American intelligence agencies concluded with “high confidence” the country interfered to bolster Trump’s chances of winning against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The New York Times reports that U.S. intelligence officials concluded Russia hacked both Democratic and Republican Party systems prior to the election but were selective in what they leaked to the public, keeping the GOP information private while leaking the Democratic documents to WikiLeaks.
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers expressed anger over the findings, with several calling for an investigation into Russia’s actions. Mike Morell, the former acting director of the CIA, called Russia’s interference “the political equivalent of 9/11.”
Trump said Sunday it’s “ridiculous” to think Russia intervened in the election.
“I think it’s just another excuse,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News. “I don’t believe it.”
This post has been updated with information on Tillerson’s Exxon Mobil stock.