Steamrolling the Cabinet Choices is a Mistake; Tillerson is an Example

Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, at the World Gas Conference, Paris, June 2015

New Orleans    Well, we may not have a new President in the US quite yet, but Congress is back in session and the elephants are trying to stampede nominations through the Senate committees in lightning speed. Granted, most of these folks are going to end up exactly where Trump has appointed them to serve and where Congress is trying to apply the grease, but it’s fair to ask, whose house is on fire?

Former ethics lawyers with experience in this vetting and confirmation process for both the last Bush Administration and the current Obama Administration, seem horrified that the Republicans are trying to steamroll these nominees to approval before they have even completed their forms and provided full financial disclosures. Furthermore, according to the ethics review folks, they are swamped partially by the extent of the wealth and diverse investments that tangle some of these billionaires and multi-millionaires on the Trump team. Nobody seems to be dilly-dallying here, but it takes a lot of shovels to dig through this mess.

What’s the logic behind the speedup? It’s hard to imagine that these folks are going to not end up being approved given the votes that line up in the Senate, so why not have the problems come up early where they can be sorted at the committee level, rather than later when opponents, reporters, and public interest groups stumble on the problems, as they inevitably will, and it becomes a scandal for the new administration?

Some of the questions seem softball anyway. A number of Democratic Senators say they want to ask all of the nominees about their views on whether the Russians were behind all of the hacking. They will all read a prepared statement and go with a party line there. Nothing new is going to come out of that line of questioning, it’s just playing for the cheap seats, but I can’t even figure out where the theater is at this point.

Take Rex Tillerson though as the nominee from ExxonMobil for Secretary of State. My last piece of vacation reading was Steve Coll’s Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. The book is a couple of years old, published in 2012, but well-researched and objectively reported, as usual by Coll. Reading the book, you can’t help but have a list of questions for Tillerson. They start with his relationship with Putin and their dealings in Russia, which were what won the CEO job for Tillerson more than a decade ago. What about the side deal with the Kurds was also made by Tillerson while in the top job was outside of the lines drawn by American policy in Iraq and in some ways skirting the letter of the law on sanctions. There has been some attention there already, but how about Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Nigeria, and Indonesia where ExxonMobil, including under Tillerson’s watch maintained virtual private armies and flaunted exceptions to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, especially in Equatorial Guinea, with a straightforward argument that they should be allowed to “pay to play” with the ruling family. How about the general policy under Tillerson and his predecessors to coddle dictators and prop up their regimes where oil and gas comes first and are the only flag ExxonMobil flies? How about tense relationships of the company in Venezuela and what that will mean in a Tillerson-run State Department to our relationships in Latin America? When Tillerson’s qualifications are his contacts with state oil companies and the heads of state and bureaucrats where ExxonMobil has had commercial transactions, how do those relationships get realigned to the public good rather than the private enterprise, when his job is America and not ExxonMobil? And, I’m putting the little matter of his likely request for a special certificate to escape capital gains on cashing out $180 million in ExxonMobil shares for a huge tax break at the bottom of the list.

And, Tillerson may be one of Trump’s better nominees for all I know, but there’s no way it’s in the public’s interest to steamroll the process. It’s even bad politics.

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