Rex Tillerson, the 69th US Secretary of State, has taken the charge of a State Department that is distressed and anxious about Donald Trump’s turbulent first days in office.
The 64-year-old, Texas-born head of Exxon Mobil worked for the oil and gas company in the US, Yemen and Russia. He is known for his close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which came up during his confirmation hearings.
He has no experience in the public sector, a first in modern history for a Secretary of State.
Tillerson joined ExxonMobil in 1975, after receiving a civil engineering degree from the University of Texas. He worked his way up through the ranks, beginning as a production engineer and becoming Chairman and Chief Executive in 2006.
The lifelong Exxon employee beat a long list of seasoned candidates in the running for the post, including former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Senator Bob Corker, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and former CIA chief David Petraeus.
To counter concerns over his lack of experience, former Secretary of Defence Robert Gates hailed Tillerson as “a global champion of the best values of our country” while former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice shared similar sentiment.
President Donald Trump said the former Exxon CEO will bring “a clear-eyed focus to foreign affairs” as was confirmed in the Senate by a vote of 56 to 43, with all Republicans in support and most Democrats voting against him.
Tillerson was No. 20 on Forbes’ most powerful people list in 2015.
Tillerson has close links to the Kremlin, and his relationship with Russia was a focal point in his confirmation hearings with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December.
Tillerson was widely known for opposing sanctions against Russia in his ExxonMobil corporate life. He refused to label Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal as he had known him since the 1990s and was awarded Order of Friendship in 2013 by Putin.
During his time at Exxon, Tillerson reportedly forged multibillion-dollar deals with Russia’s state oil company, Rosneft, including an agreement to explore underground resources in Siberia that could be worth billions of dollars.
He is also known to be a friend of Igor Sechin, Rosneft’s Executive Chairman who was formerly Putin’s Deputy Prime Minister. Sechin has been called Russia’s second most powerful man.
Tillerson had also publicly spoken out against international sanctions placed on Russia over its annexation of Crimea.
Republican Senators Marco Rubio and John McCain expressed serious concerns about Tillerson’s Russian connections but came round.
At the confirmation hearing, Tillerson called Russia a “danger” to the US and said he favoured maintaining US sanctions against Moscow.
He also recommended a “full review” of the nuclear deal with Iran, but he did not call for an outright rejection of the accord.
Tillerson also takes responsibility for US policy in one of the world’s biggest flashpoints: the South China Sea.
Tillerson said China should be blocked from accessing the artificial islands it has built, setting the stage for a potential showdown. He said that China should stop island building in the South China Sea and be denied access to these islands, which China regards as an integral part of its territory.
“Building islands and then putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea. It’s taking of territory that others lay claim to,” Tillerson said in his confirmation hearing.
“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also not going to be allowed.”
Although Tillerson has acknowledged climate change is a problem, ExxonMobil was the subject of controversy at its shareholders meeting last year for rejecting resolutions that would have pushed the company’s resources towards renewable energy. The company has been accused of trying to cover up the risks of climate change and lying to the public.
His confirmation has already drawn the ire of environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace.
Tillerson is a lifelong Boy Scout. He was an Eagle Scout in his youth and became president of the national organisation. It was under his leadership the organisation embraced the membership of young men who identified as gay.
Tillerson originally supported Jeb Bush for President. He gave Bush the maximum allowable contribution in September 2015.