As our power elites pirouette through yet another ritual transition, they often cannot help but remind us that where they stand depends on where they sit.
And that’s the way things turned out Wednesday, shortly after President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Wayne Tillerson, formerly ExxonMobil’s chairman and CEO, took his seat at the large table in front of the historic Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing room. Tillerson, a savvy executive who is far more than just a well-traveled oilman, was prepped to say all the right things to show the senators who must approve his nomination that he could be a firm-yet-wise guardian of America’s global policies.
Sitting in the Senate hearing room, Tillerson warned the senators about the dangers posed by “adversaries like Iran and North Korea.” He said a lack of U.S. leadership created a “void of uncertainty” and “our adversaries have been emboldened to take advantage of this absence of American leadership.” He said: “We must hold ourselves accountable to upholding the promises we make to others.” And he pointedly acknowledged “sanctions” can be a “powerful tool.”
But rewind back to the first years of this century, when Tillerson was sitting at his desk in Dallas: ExxonMobil devised a legal loophole that enabled the oil company to evade U.S. sanctions and do business with Iran, Syria and Sudan — despite the fact that all three were under sanctions as state sponsors of terrorism.
As first reported by USA Today on Jan. 9, ExxonMobil reportedly conducted its business Iran, Syria and Sudan through a European subsidiary named Infineum, a joint venture with Shell Corporation in which ExxonMobil held a 50 percent ownership, according to filings at the Security and Exchange Commission. The transactions reportedly occurred from 2003-05. An SEC filing in 2006 showed the subsidiary reported $53.2 million to Iran, $1.1 million to Syria and $600,000 to Sudan in the three years — just small change to the ExxonMobil, which posted a $371 billion annual income.
“ExxonMobil told USA TODAY the transactions were legal because Infineum, a joint venture with Shell Corporation, was based in Europe and the transactions did not involve any U.S. employees,” said the report by USA Today correspondent Oren Dorell. The article said the documents had originally been discovered by a Democratic research group, American Bridge.
Legal, shmegal – these were three countries that were under sanctions for being state sponsors of terrorism. Senators — especially the committee’s Republicans — need to ask themselves just this: If Hillary Clinton had somehow been part of a company that devised this clever backdoor way of doing even chump-change business with Iran, Syria and Sudan, what would Donald Trump have said? And even more important — what would the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Republicans be saying today?
Also, how does ExxonMobil’s clever way of evading sanctions against three countries the state department labeled sponsors of terrorism measure up to Tillerson’s statements about sanctions being powerful tools and America needing to keep its promises?
Now this: In 2011, ExxonMobil sought to develop potentially lucrative oil resources in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. The Kurds were all for the deal — but there was this minor annoyance: Iraq’s central government was opposed and so was the U.S. state department, which Tillerson is now seeking to command. State Department officials asked the U.S. oil execs to hold off. “When Exxon has sought our advice about this, we asked them to wait for national legislation,” said state’s spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. But Tillerson went to Iraq and personally pushed the deal through, The Washington Post reported.
What would Trump have said if Hillary Clinton had ignored a state department request and done that? The good news is that, if Trump wishes to rewind and watch Tillerson’s hearing, he surely would have noticed that there was a very fine potential secretary of state right there in the committee’s hearing chamber that has hosted so many historic debates on global war and peace. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, who was once high on Trump’s list, was there, smoothly running the show as always.
But then again, Vladimir Putin never decorated Corker with Russia’s Order of Friendship medal — an honor that no doubt greatly impressed Putin’s pal, our president-elect.
It is highly unlikely the Senate’s Republican majority will find the personable oil exec’s loophole evasion of anti-terrorism sanctions so irksome that they will deny Trump his secretary of state. Soon Tillerson will be sitting behind the desk where those sanction decisions get made.
Martin Schram is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.