The much anticipated appointment of Rex Tillerson as top diplomat in the President-elect’s administration brings consternation to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and cheer to the Kremlin. His history of ties to Russia and Putin make him an apropos addition to the ‘Conflict of Interest’ Cabinet.
As Tillerson’s history as an oilman is the subject of much of the media focus regarding the appointment, the President-elect seems to have avoided widespread criticism of his lengthy and somewhat ‘Revolving Door’-like deliberations.
Given that Trump settled on such a contentious choice, it is easy to forget the number of officials he courted for the job over the month since he won the election. Among the high profile rejectees who didn’t make the grade were Rudolph Giuliani and Mitt Romney.
However, this does disservice to Trump’s HR team, as they also managed to contact Senator Bob Corker, David H. Petraeus, the former Army general and C.I.A. director, and 2012 presidential candidate Jon M. Huntsman Jr, about the position.
The transition from the Obama to the Trump administration could not be described as plain sailing, and with this protracted appointment, Trump is ensuring that it continues to be the case.
Deals or Diplomacy
Tillerson has spent the last 40 years of his life working at Exxon Mobil, pursuing opportunities for company growth all over the world. As such, even his critics could not argue that he is anything but a supreme negotiator. Yet, it is unclear whether his experience makes him a suitable candidate to be proselytizing for peace on behalf of the United States, and the democracy that it purports to uphold.
The energy industry is a murky place at best, and when it comes to Russian energy this remains unquestionably the case. It is Tillerson’s dealings in Russia that may come under close scrutiny from Congress, with many representatives (of both parties) feeling that Russia, and Putin, must not be considered allies.
John McCain was clear of his opinion when questioned by NPR: “I have concerns about what kind of business we do with a butcher, a murderer and a thug, which is exactly what Vladimir Putin is”.
During Tillerson’s tenure Exxon entered into an agreement, worth billions of dollars, with Rosneft, the oil company considered the Kremlin’s oil flagship. According to CNN, Putin himself attended the signing ceremony for the deal in 2011. It is hard to believe that the Order of Friendship Russia bestowed on Tillerson was not a direct consequence of this.
The question presents itself: does a friend of Putin have what it takes to have the hard conversations that are clearly necessary in light of the Syrian Civil War, the Russian annexation of Crimea and continuing involvement in Ukraine as well as the alleged Russian hacking involved in the recent election?
The billionaire cabinet grows
Putting the history of Tillerson to one side, a trend that can no longer be described as emerging is that of the super-wealthy appointments to Trump’s cabinet. Tillerson is said to own $151 Million of Exxon Mobil stock, and his addition to the administration puts him alongside a growing number of millionaires and billionaires.
The vast wealth of Trump’s team has brought to light the ability of such appointments to make huge sums of money serving their country. A rule imposed during George H.W.Bush’s administration, with the aim of ‘minimizing the burden’ of wealthy people assuming high office, is at the heart of this.
This rule allows the cabinet to sell off their assets tax-free, and subsequently reinvest the money in low-risk assets, such as government bonds and mutual funds. While they are still required to pay the capital gains tax once they sell their low-risk assets, the benefit of transferring such wealth from high-risk to low-risk assets is immense.
Wilbur Ross, nominee for Secretary of Commerce has a wealth valued at $2.9 billion, and his deputy Todd Ricketts’ family is worth $1.8 billion. The nominee for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos belongs to a family fortune of $5.1 billion. The Small Business Administration nominee Linda McMahon owns $84 million of World Wrestling Entertainment stock and shares a net worth of at least 1.35 billion with husband Vince McMahon.
A number of other multi-millionaires are also nominees and the list continues to grow. Many observers believe Trump’s campaign claims to ‘Drain the Swamp’ are taking a questionable form. He is not, by any means, making the typical choice and appointing politicians to his cabinet, but the conflicts of interest – both domestic and foreign – are mounting.