Tillerson Refused to Do Another Russia Deal

The Rex effect.

Photographer: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

It's no wonder President Donald Trump no longer needs Rex Tillerson. In little more than a year as secretary of state, he proved incapable of the deal-making magic his boss sought at the beginning of his administration. Nowhere was the shortcoming more pronounced than on Russia.

As chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil, Tillerson went boldly where the U.S. government didn't really want him to go. Contrary to U.S. policy goals and State Department guidance, he did business with the government of Iraqi Kurdistan in 2011. In April 2012, Exxon Mobil and the Russian state-owned oil champion, Rosneft, unveiled a $500 billion Arctic exploration partnership. It was this deal that earned Tillerson the Russian Order of Friendship, which President Vladimir Putin personally pinned on his chest in 2013 (that was before Russia grabbed Crimea but after the U.S.-Russian relationship went cold). Later, the U.S. Treasury Department would accuse Tillerson's management team at Exxon of violating sanctions as it tried to hold on to the partnership after the Crimea annexation.  

Trump's election campaign had been all about the upsides of running a sluggish government like an agile business. Getting along with Putin was one of his stated goals. Tillerson, who had had deep doubts about Russia's business climate, made his huge deal with Rosneft by going directly to Putin and building a relationship. His appointment looked logical, inasmuch as anything Trump did followed any kind of logic.