Late Monday evening, it became official: the ExxonMobil CEO was Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state, beating out Rudy Giuliani (too loyal), Mitt Romney (not loyal enough), John Bolton (too crazy for secretary of state—just crazy enough for deputy secretary of state), and Bob Corker (more like Bob Cucker).
It’s easy to see why Tillerson was selected: Trump harped all campaign about how businessmen are better negotiators than diplomats, whom he considers to be effete morons, and Trump’s only conception of politics is as an unending series of business deals. But Tillerson may have also been selected as part of Trump’s ongoing project of resetting relations with Russia, the country which almost certainly played a role of undetermined size in getting him elected. ExxonMobil treats itself not as an American company, but as a global company that happens to do business with America. In his role as CEO, Tillerson worked very closely with Vladimir Putin on large oil deals and was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship by Putin in 2013. His company has billions at stake in Russia and he has argued strenuously against the economic sanctions that were imposed after its annexation of Crimea. ExxonMobil is stridently anti-sanctions because sanctions mean less money.
Tillerson’s Russian connection is an important wedge. Unlike some of the other cabinet nominees who are expected to have rocky hearings—we’ll hear quite a bit about Jeff Sessions’s history of racism and Steven Mnuchin’s history of booting old ladies from their homes—opposition to Tillerson will be bipartisan. Russian hawks—particularly John McCain and Lindsay Graham, but also Marco Rubio—have already signaled that they will most likely oppose Tillerson, at least for a little while. And it’s possible that they’ll get assistance from other senators who want to show that they’re tough on Russia. Rand Paul will almost certainly be among this group, but Politico suggests that he could be joined by Ron Johnson and Johnny Isakson as well.
That doesn’t mean that Tillerson won’t be confirmed, just that his hearings often won’t be about him at all—instead they’ll be about sending a strong message to Moscow. This could be a lesson to Trump about how Washington works. Being president doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want, and that may be a serious wakeup call to someone who has little knowledge of the presidency.