In an interview on Monday, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway called Rex Tillerson, the current chief executive of Exxon Mobile and President-elect Donald Trump’s newly announced pick for Secretary of State, “a very Trumpian-inspired pick.” Tillerson is someone who has spent his career outside of politics crafting big deals and making a big impact, she said.
But there’s an aspect of Tillerson’s biography that is not so Trumpian. As an energy executive, Tillerson voiced support for global free trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade pact that was once of Trump’s favorite targets during the campaign.
Trump denounced the TPP, President Barack Obama’s signature deal, as a “potential disaster.” He argued it was a terrible deal for American workers and said he would withdraw the U.S. from the deal on his first day in office. Republican Congressional leaders have said they are unwilling to bring the deal to a vote in Obama’s remaining months in office, meaning the TPP is almost certainly dead.
This hardly appears to be a fleeting policy position: Trump has consistently criticized global free trade deals as disadvantaging American workers throughout his career.
Tillerson has maintained a very different stance. In a speech he gave to the Asia Society Global Forum on June 13, 2013, Tillerson talked about his support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he said would provide the open markets that would allow the United States and countries in Asia and elsewhere to grow and progress.
“We must embrace the free flow of energy, capital, and human talent across oceans and borders,” Tillerson told the crowd.
As reports emerged that the incoming Trump administration was considering Tillerson for secretary of state, his position on trade attracted attention and criticism from some.
“America First? Um … not so fast,” conservative political analyst Bill Kristol tweeted Sunday. “As SecState, CEO of multinational that cuts deal with one and all – the very definition of a ‘globalist.’ “
As secretary of State, Tillerson wouldn’t be directly involved in negotiating trade deals – that’s primarily the job of the United States Trade Representative.
But the State Department does play a prominent role in helping to promote the president’s international trade agenda and broadly guiding trade policy as part of the Trade Promotion Coordinating Committee, an interagency committee that coordinating export promotion and finance.
In addition, trade could figure prominently in Tillerson’s job if Trump pursues some of his biggest campaign promises. Trump has pledged to seek out better terms of trade with major economic partners like Mexico and China, a likely source of conflict that could easily define the diplomatic relationship with these countries for years to come.
Last week, the Obama administration said that it wouldn’t grant China the official title of a “market economy” at the World Trade Organization, a move which might significantly lower the punitive tariffs other countries could apply to China if the country violates agreed-upon trade terms. Trump has also indicated that he does not see China as a market economy.
The move has provoked a strong response from China, which launched a legal challenge under WTO rules.
Tillerson’s past support of the TPP may not be terribly surprising, given the pact’s likely benefits for the U.S. energy industry. The trade pact could have resulted in an increase in U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas to Asia, due to increased access to Japan’s profitable market, Michael Levi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote last year.
If his nomination is approved, Tillerson will not be alone on Trump’s cabinet in his previous support of the TPP. Wilbur Ross, Trump’s pick for Commerce Secretary, Iowa governor Terry Branstad, who is to serve as Trump’s ambassador to China, and even Vice President-elect Mike Pence have all been past supporters of the deal.