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President-elect Donald Trump says he's nominated one of the most accomplished business leaders and international dealmakers to be his secretary of state. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson will have his Senate confirmation hearing next month. Before then, Tillerson will have to think hard about how to distance himself from the company where he's spent his entire career. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When John Kerry became secretary of state nearly four years ago, he and his wife divested from a long list of companies to avoid any possible conflict of interest. George Shultz, who came from the private sector to serve in the Reagan administration, set up a blind trust according to Davis Robinson, who was the State Department's legal adviser at the time.
DAVIS ROBINSON: His was not as complicated as Mr. Tillerson because Mr. Tillerson own so much of Exxon's stock.
KELEMEN: There are several options to meet federal ethics laws, and there are tax breaks so that wealthy appointees who have to sell off assets in order to serve in government can defer capital gains taxes. Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University, says divestment is the most effective cure to conflict of interest concerns.
PAUL LIGHT: If you're to reassure the public that your negotiations with foreign governments have no tie to your financial interests, you divest.
KELEMEN: For President-elect Trump's pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, that may not be enough. Even if he divests from ExxonMobil's stock, he will face tough questions about his past dealings, especially in Russia.
Tillerson opposed U.S. sanctions on Russia that slowed a joint project between ExxonMobil and Rosneft to drill in the Arctic. Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, says those were sanctions put in place after Russia annexed Crimea and stirred up a conflict in eastern Ukraine.
CHRIS COONS: It troubles me gravely that Mr. Tillerson would have reason to advocate for the rolling back of sanctions because that would be in the best interest of his company. And it is my hope that he is enough of a patriot to be able to separate his decades-long affiliation with this major oil company and the genuine interests of the American people.
KELEMEN: And it's not just Russia, says Coons, who's on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
COONS: I suspect we will be having discussions about a number of different countries where he negotiated relationships or deals with dictators or authoritarian regimes that worked for ExxonMobil but that would not work for America's interests.
KELEMEN: One of Tillerson's former colleagues at ExxonMobil in Russia, Edward Verona, says he thinks the oil executive will be able to make the switch to the State Department.
EDWARD VERONA: And I don't believe that he would certainly not consciously do anything that would contravene the interests of the United States for the potential benefit of his former company. That's just my sense of him.
KELEMEN: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Republican Bob Corker, says he'll chair a confirmation hearing for Tillerson in early January. Some Senate staffers point out that even before Tillerson meets with senators, he needs to answer a questionnaire about whether and how he will sever his business relationships with ExxonMobil. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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