Commentary from Democracy Fellow Kai Thaler on Tillerson Confirmation as U.S. Secretary of State

In this op-ed, originally published by the Maine Beacon, Ash Center Democracy Doctoral Fellow Kai Thaler entreats his Maine Senator, Angus King, to rethink his backing of Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State. Thaler argues that Tillerson’s actions as CEO of Exxon Mobil and his ties with Vladimir Putin and other autocratic leaders with questionable human rights records should preclude him from being confirmed.

By Kai Thaler

Senators Susan Collins’ and Angus King’s decisions to back Rex Tillerson’s confirmation as Secretary of State are highly disappointing and not in the best interests of Mainers or the nation. Tillerson, though he may be a good businessman, is a poor choice to be the United States’ top diplomat for four reasons.

First, during his confirmation hearings Tillerson refused to take responsibility for Exxon Mobil’s funding of climate change denial while he was CEO, saying he didn’t have enough knowledge about what was happening. Climate change is already affecting Maine’s forests, fisheries, agriculture, and winter recreation industries, and President Trump plans to pull out of the Paris climate change agreement, a huge setback for our collective environmental future. Tillerson has shown insufficient commitment to following the facts on climate change, favoring profit over responsible environmental protection. Failure to work to mitigate climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions is an abdication of US global leadership and a betrayal of future generations, plus an insult to scientists at universities and research laboratories in Maine and around the world.

Second, Tillerson has dodged questions about his ties with Vladimir Putin and Russia’s authoritarian government. Putin personally gave Tillerson an award for his deals with Russia’s crony capitalist dictatorship. Tillerson denied knowledge of Exxon Mobil’s lobbying against sanctions on Russia over Russia’s seizure of Crimea and sponsorship of rebels in Eastern Ukraine. He also ducked Senator Marco Rubio’s questions about Russian war crimes committed in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime. Confirming Tillerson is a reward for Russia when they are already emboldened and Trump, who has never denounced Russian interference in our elections, has taken the focus off of Russian interference in our elections, even as Russia has used propaganda campaigns to destabilize our German allies. Meanwhile, President Trump is tweeting Russian propaganda lines about Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham wanting to “start WWIII,” because they argued against his anti-Muslim, xenophobic, and counterproductive executive order on immigration and refugees. In fact, what is more likely to start World War III is Tillerson’s contention that US forces should cut off Chinese vessels from China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea, which China has made it clear it would view as an act of war.

Third, under Tillerson, Exxon Mobil repeatedly worked with autocratic leaders and human rights violators in pursuit of profit. From Indonesia to Chad to Kazakhstan to Equatorial Guinea, Tillerson and Exxon Mobil have not cared about the type of regimes they have bolstered, nor about US national interests. In Iraq, Exxon Mobil struck deals with regional authorities, rather than the central government, undermining US policy. Tillerson’s history is not one of a patriot, a humanitarian, or a person of principle: Tillerson himself has said “My philosophy is to make money.” Is this the ideal we want guiding US foreign policy?

Finally, senators need to question Tillerson about the tumultuous events of this past weekend. What is Tillerson’s stance on the executive order restricting entry to the US for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, and how would he explain this policy to our allies? He was not given details before the order was issued, and has not publicly discussed either the dissent memo about the executive order from career foreign service officers or the firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates over the order. After this, would Tillerson speak up against administration plans that would violate international law, such as Trump’s contention that the US should have seized Iraq’s oil after toppling Saddam Hussein? What is Tillerson’s stance on the National Security Council reorganization? These questions are extremely important because, as discussed above, Tillerson has denied and dodged responsibility for actions undertaken by Exxon Mobil under his leadership. We need to know if he would take responsibility for State Department actions if confirmed, because Congress will have trouble holding Tillerson to account if he is not forthright or is not fully informed about the foreign policy actions he is tasked with overseeing and presenting to our allies.

Recent events should be enough to delay any confirmation vote on Tillerson until he can be further questioned by senators. Tillerson should already be disqualified, though: he lacks the diplomatic experience, appreciation for facts, independence from foreign interests, and clear commitment to national interests to serve as Secretary of State. Unless Sens. Collins and King change their minds, their votes will be undermining the environmental and foreign policy future for Mainers and our country.

Kai Thaler is a Yarmouth native and lifelong supporter of defending Maine’s environment. He is a Democracy Doctoral Fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, HKS, working on global conflict, foreign policy, human rights, and the dynamics of authoritarianism and democratization.

Published 1 February 2017 by the Maine Beacon. Available at:

Filed under Democracy Program, Representation

Originally published at



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