Bad optics, but I don’t think it’ll sink his nomination as there’s no evidence that the deals were illegal. The only reproach Exxon seems to have gotten was a letter from the SEC and that was for failing to disclose the transactions to shareholders in financial reports, not for the transactions themselves.
ExxonMobil did business with Iran, Syria and Sudan through a European subsidiary while President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of State was a top executive of the oil giant and those countries were under U.S. sanctions as state sponsors of terrorism, Securities and Exchange Commission filings show…
The sales were conducted in 2003, 2004 and 2005 by Infineum, in which ExxonMobil owned a 50% share, according to SEC documents unearthed by American Bridge, a Democratic research group…
The SEC letter questioned ExxonMobil’s failure to disclose to shareholders that it had transactions with three state sponsors of terrorism. Decisions to make such disclosures should be based on “the potential impact of corporate activities upon a company`s reputation and share value,” and not simply the monetary value of the transactions, the SEC said.
Compared to Exxon’s overall annual revenue of $371 billion, “these transactions are not material by any reasonable measure,” Richard Gutman, ExxonMobil’s assistant general counsel at the time, wrote in response to an SEC inquiry regarding the transactions. He did not address the SEC’s concerns about the impact on the oil company’s reputation.
It was the European offices of Infineum that did the deals with the three nations, with no American personnel involved, amounting to just shy of $55 million in total sales over three years. Vis-a-vis the company’s total revenue, it’s a drop in the oily bucket. Besides, the staunch backing Tillerson has gotten from Republican hawks like Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney will serve to protect him here just as it will from suspicions over his relationship with Putin and Russia. If Tillerson’s position on rogue states is hawkish enough for the Bush neoconservative dream team, it should be good enough for Senate Republicans.
This isn’t the first time Tillerson’s been accused of taking sanctions on a dubious regime lightly, though. In 2014, he went to Moscow for the World Petroleum Conference after the U.S. had slapped sanctions on Russia over Ukraine. It wasn’t illegal for him to go, but the U.S. government discouraged it; he ended up sharing a stage with a Russian official who was himself being sanctioned at that point by the United States. You can see the Democratic narrative developing here: Tillerson, America’s chief diplomat, is willing to undermine his country’s stance towards rogue regimes when he thinks there’s a buck to be made by doing so. It’s a way of questioning his patriotism, and by extension Trump’s. How much can hawks trust Tillerson to support sanctions on enemy states as head of the State Department knowing how much it might hurt American businesses, including and especially his old firm? And how much can hawks trust Trump to be tough on Russia or Iran when he’d seek out someone like Tillerson to be his chief diplomat?
Dems will also fold that into their attacks on Trump for his business conflicts of interest over the next four years. Every time the Trump Organization does a deal with some shady foreign entity, even if Trump’s no longer in control of the business himself, they’ll point to Tillerson’s dealings at Exxon as a reminder that Trump and his team are happy to make nice with illiberal actors in the name of fattening their own coffers. I don’t think they’ll get the votes to block Tillerson, though, even with John McCain having recently said he’d support the nominee when pigs fly. Red-state Democrats like Joe Manchin will bail Trump out by voting with Republicans. This oppo drop on Tillerson is simply designed to make it a tiny bit more painful for them when they do. Here’s Democratic Sen. Chris Coons discussing his recent meeting with Tillerson, and noting that Tillerson’s foreign-policy views sounded a bit more hawkish to him than Trump might like.