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‘CEO’ Tillerson Faces Internal Skeptics

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – One of Rex Tillerson’s first directives as U.S. secretary of state was an order to senior staff that his briefing materials not exceed two pages.

It was a reflection of Tillerson’s management style honed at the helm of Exxon Mobil, an oil company known for its relentless focus on efficiency, and one reason his closest aides at the State Department refer to him as “the CEO” rather than “the Secretary.”

More than a dozen current and former U.S. officials familiar with briefing procedures said Tillerson’s predecessors would typically request far more detailed information. His aide R.C. Hammond said the directive reflected Tillerson’s focus on key facts rather than lack of interest in finer points of foreign policy.

“He is asking people to be efficient with their information,” Hammond said, adding that if Tillerson needed more information he would ask for it. “He is a decision-maker and he needs the facts in front of him.”

As a first-time government official with no prior diplomatic experience, Tillerson faces close scrutiny over how successful he will be in managing both the State Department bureaucracy and its relations with Donald Trump and his administration.

Senior State Department officials who have attended meetings with Tillerson say they find him sociable and a man of substance, whose direct manner and probing questions reflect his training as an engineer seeking to solve problems rather than play politics.

The veteran oil executive also made a good impression on his first foreign trip to a Group of 20 summit in Bonn, Germany, last week. Four senior diplomats who met him told Reuters they were relieved to find that he was pragmatic and open to dialogue.

Yet a key concern for U.S. diplomats is how effective his team can be in shaping foreign policy in the new administration. Just two State Department positions of 116 key posts requiring executive branch nomination have been filled, according to the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service – Tillerson’s and that of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

For example, Tillerson still has no deputy after Trump rejected his top choice, Elliott Abrams.

“People want to back him,” one veteran senior official said about the former Exxon Mobil boss. “But people are feeling that this building is being stripped,” said the official, referring to a sense that with so many top positions vacant, the State Department is not fully equipped to help make policy in the new administration.

There is also unease over possible deep staff cuts and the future of some departments. Two people said employees in the Bureau of Management and Resources were told to apply for other positions within the State Department. Hammond, Tillerson’s aide said no decision had been taken to close that division.

IN OR OUT OF THE LOOP?

On one recent matter of longstanding U.S. foreign policy, Tillerson appeared to be sidelined.

On Feb. 14, while Tillerson was at a dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a State Department dining room, news headlines emerged suggesting the United States was backing away from supporting a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians.

The two-state solution is the bedrock of the international community’s policy for a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, but Trump suggested last week he was open to abandoning it if both sides agree.

“No one had been informed of any changes in policy and the Secretary was about to leave on his first major trip,” said one senior State Department official, referring to Tillerson’s visit to Bonn.

Tillerson’s acting deputy Tom Shannon also did not take part in Trump’s meeting with Netanyahu at the White House the following day when his boss was on his way to Europe, according to one U.S. official.

It was unclear whether Tillerson had been left out of the loop deliberately or by accident, said two officials.

A White House official told Reuters he did not know whether Tillerson was briefed in advance. In response to broader concerns about communication between the State Department and the new administration, he said both coordinated “very well.”

“There are open lines of communications in both directions,” the official, who declined to be named, said. “The White House and the State Department coordinate closely across a full range of issues that concern both organizations.” To be sure, on another important issue, Tillerson had his say in persuading Trump to back Washington’s stance on “One China” policy, which acknowledges Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of it. Trump has in the past appeared to question whether the United States would continue to respect that.

Hammond said Tillerson was on the phone with Trump several times a day.

“This is the general style of the president to have quick check-ins with people, get people’s advice on things,” he said. “Information for CEOs flows up, and as a former CEO (Tillerson) understands that.”

Tillerson has said little publicly since he started and his aides are quick to draw a contrast between him and predecessor John Kerry, a former senator and presidential candidate who reveled in extensive foreign travel and deal making.

“Tillerson is not John Kerry, it is unfair to compare the two,” said Hammond. “He will quietly go about his job as a counselor and advisor to the president.”

For Tillerson’s State Department the concern is how to maintain a similar degree of communication with an administration grappling with a succession of crises, nine officials involved in foreign policy and security issues, said.

Over the past month the White House has faced legal setbacks over its immigration orders, the resignation of Trump’s national security adviser, and an investigation into possible links between his campaign and Russian intelligence.

Monday’s resignation of Michael Flynn, who served as Trump’s national security adviser for just 24 days, in particular created a vacuum at the National Security Council, which acts as a key partner for the State Department in formulating Washington’s foreign policy.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Jonathan Landay and Steve Holland in Washington and Andrea Shalal in Bonn. Editing by Warren Strobel and Tomasz Janowski)

IMAGE: US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listens during an opening session meeting of G-20 foreign ministers at the World Conference Center February 16, 2017 in Bonn, Germany. REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski/Pool

Solar-Power Amendment On Florida’s Ballot A ‘Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing’

Let the scum shine.

The solar-power amendment on Florida’s ballot is a slick, oily fraud. Promoted as a way to expand solar energy and protect residents who want it, Amendment 1 would do just the opposite.

All you need to know is who’s bankrolling the massive advertising campaign: Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy, Tampa Electric Co., Gulf Power, and a few nonprofits funded heavily by Exxon Mobil and a pair of right-wing billionaire brothers named Koch.

When is the last time they all banded together to do something wonderful for the average consumer?

These are not fans of broadening our energy choices. These are politically powerful utility and oil interests seeking to restrict and monopolize the burgeoning solar industry. The last thing they want is free-market competition. The prospect worries them so much that they’ve forked out almost $22 million to push for Amendment 1.

Their political committee calls itself “Consumers for Smart Solar.” The PR wiz who came up with that name must have gotten a good laugh, because consumers would be the long-term victims of this measure.

From its beginning, the secret strategy for selling Amendment 1 was to deceive Floridians into believing it was a populist, pro-solar movement. Last week, reporter Mary Ellen Klas of the Herald obtained a devastating audiotape of a presentation made by an executive of a Tallahassee think tank that provides “research” to the state’s big electric utilities.

On the tape, Sal Nuzzo of the James Madison Institute is heard praising Amendment 1 as “an incredibly savvy maneuver” that “would completely negate anything they (pro-solar groups) would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road.”

After Nuzzo’s comments became public, JMI hastily issued a statement saying he “misspoke” during the industry conference at which he was recorded. But the damage was done, Nuzzo’s confident remarks confirming what opponents of Amendment 1 (including the Florida League of Women Voters) have been saying all along. The whole idea is to screw solar providers that could some day compete with the major electric companies.

The amendment was word-crafted with the sole intent of trickery. The first item supposedly gives electricity consumers a “constitutional right” to own or lease solar equipment “for their own use.”

Guess what? We’ve already got that right — no amendment necessary.

The second part of the ballot item is the trapdoor: “State and local governments shall retain their abilities to protect consumer rights and public health, safety and welfare, and to ensure that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric access to those who do.”

That language opens the way for municipalities and the state to hit local solar providers with fees and regulations that could prevent them from selling low-cost electricity to customers, which would basically defeat the whole purpose of the technology.

Planting the fear that non-solar users might be forced to “subsidize” grid access for solar customers is a groundless and sleazy scare tactic that exposes the cold desperation of the big power companies.

FPL and Duke Energy are investing heavily in solar, and they don’t want to compete with smaller firms that might offer lower rates to people.

Meanwhile, mulling their huge investments in coal and petroleum, the ever-meddling Charles and David Koch have been waging war on solar power all across the country. They’ve taken a particular interest in smothering that industry in sunny Florida.

Solar is an extremely popular concept here. Many families and business owners like the idea of clean, abundant, affordable energy.

“Solar polls very well,” remarked chatty Sal Nuzzo to his audience of power-company players last month.

No wonder, then, that Amendment 1 has been disguised as a pro-solar, pro-consumer initiative. Otherwise it wouldn’t have a prayer of passing.

“A wolf in sheep’s clothing,” wrote Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente in her dissent, when the court voted 4-3 to allow the measure on the ballot.

Because changing the Florida Constitution requires the approval of 60 percent of voters, “Consumers for Smart Solar” has been pulling out all the stops, including buying top advertising positions on the Google search engine.

The TV commercials and “Yes on 1 For the Sun” all-media campaign radiate admiration for the rooftop-panel technology, while promising to protect you and me from unspecified “ripoffs” and “scams.”

But the biggest scam of all is Amendment 1 itself. Florida’s electric monopolies are counting on all of us to fall for it.

Vote no. Show them the light.

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132

Photo: Solar panels at the Pittsfield Waste Water Treatment Facility (Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection/Flickr)

Is ExxonMobil Responsible For Lying About Climate Change? Republican Senators Say Fraud Is ‘Free Speech’

A group of Republican senators has written a letter to the U.S. Attorney General to stifle any future federal inquiries concerning climate change, claiming it violates the First Amendment rights of corporations like ExxonMobil, which suppressed its research into the phenomenon for several decades, according to an explosive report from Inside Climate News last September.

A group of Democratic senators has since responded with their own letter, asking the Attorney General to stay the course.

The first letter, signed by Republicans Ted Cruz, Jeff Sessions, Mike Lee, David Perdue, and David Vitter, accused the attorney general of suppressing debate on the validity of climate change, a violation of the First Amendment rights of corporations who have continued to question the validity of climate change.

Privately-funded scientific research can be actively misrepresented, they argue, even despite the global implications of doing so. It’s not fraud, it’s free speech!

“These actions provide disturbing confirmation that government officials at all levels are threatening to wield the sword of law enforcement to silence debate on climate change,” the letter, addressed to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, reads. “As you well know, initiating criminal prosecution for a private entity’s opinions on climate change is a blatant violation of the First Amendment and an abuse of power that rises to the level of prosecutorial misconduct.”

“Threatening prosecution of those who dare to challenge the most outlandish scaremongering by climate activists strikes at the very heart of the Free Speech protections on which this nation was founded,” said Lee, one of the senators who signed the letter, in a statement that appeared on Cruz’s Senate page.

Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Jeff Merkley, and Sheldon Whitehouse, some of the most liberal Democrats in the chamber, shot back with their own statement claiming that companies like Exxon committed fraud, which isn’t protected as free speech under the First Amendment, when suppressing the findings of its own scientists on the effects of fossils fuels.

“We write today to urge that you view the Republican Senators’ May 25 letter as Exhibit A among the reasons why the Department of Justice should take a full and honest look at possible fraud in the fossil fuel industry’s climate denial operation,” read the Democratic senators’ response. “It has always been and remains good law that fraud is not protected by the First Amendment. It would be a sorry world in which corporations engaged in fraud could pull the screen of the First Amendment over any investigation of their fraud.”

The senators said that their Republican counterparts were using tactics once used by the tobacco industry and its supporters to suppress scientific scrutiny of the harmful effects of cigarettes on humans.

“The Republican Senators’ letter reprises the tobacco lawsuit’s own early history of efforts from Congress to discourage or interfere with that lawsuit in order to protect the tobacco industry,” continued the letter. “The Republican Senators’ letter also reprises arguments made in the press against bringing the tobacco lawsuit, and made in court against that lawsuit: to wit, that the First Amendment should prevent the investigation or determine the litigation. This argument was soundly rejected by the Department, and then by Judge Kessler, and then by the United States D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.”

It’s ironic that the party of climate change deniers is demanding that their side be given the freedom of speech to air their politically motivated, unscientific opinions on climate change while consistently opposing any discussion of the real effects by anyone who doesn’t agree with them. Last year, aided in part by Cruz, Republicans claimed that NASA was wasting money monitoring weather patterns that have revealed already the real effects of climate change. “The core function of NASA is to explore space,” said the Texas senator. “NASA in the current environment has lost its full focus on that core mission.”

He was predictably annoyed that NASA was actively educating the public about the realities of climate change and sharing the data it collected with the global scientific community.

While Republicans may want to continue to question and deny the scientific validity of climate change, even their bankrollers are beginning to come around to the reality that fossil fuels are shifting the planet’s weather patterns and causing extreme weather to occur more regularly. On Wednesday, ExxonMobil, the largest publicly traded energy company in the world, voted to make it easier to elect climate change advocates to the company’s board of directors in a vote approved by 62 percent of the company’s shareholders.

“We are not ignoring the risk that is out there,” said Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson following a shareholder meeting in Dallas, when pressed by one shareholder about climate science. “I don’t think we see it all that differently. Our differences are in how we’re going to address it.”

That wasn’t the case for decades, when Exxon hid the scientific evidence of anthropogenic climate change. Now, Republicans want to protect the rights of other corporations to lie about the potentially catastrophic implications of their private scientific research.

Why Did Christie Settle With Exxon?

Last week, Republican governor Chris Christie’s administration settled New Jersey’s long-standing environmental lawsuit against ExxonMobil Corp. for pennies on the dollar. For a decade, the state had been seeking $8.9 billion in damages for pollution at two refineries in the northern part of the state, and yet Christie’s top officials abruptly proposed closing the case for just $225 million.

In the aftermath, as environmentalists express outrage and legislators move to block the settlement, the question on many observers’ minds has been simple: Why did Christie settle?

One possible answer is just as simple: money — more specifically, campaign cash.

According to federal records, ExxonMobil has donated more than $1.9 million to the Republican Governors Association since Christie’s first run for governor in 2009. That includes $279,000 during Christie’s election and re-election races, and also another half-million when he chaired the organization in 2014. Additionally, one of Exxon’s law firms in the New Jersey case also donated $30,000 to the RGA since 2013.

Another possible answer could be relationships.

Christie’s first attorney general worked for Exxon for seven years. His deputy chief of staff in 2014 left the governor’s office for a job with Exxon’s lobbying firm in Trenton. And weeks before the settlement was announced, one of his cabinet secretaries took a job with Exxon’s New Jersey law firm.

Still another possible answer about why Christie settled the Exxon case could be found in a little-noticed provision his administration slipped into the annual budget in 2014.

The language in question empowers the governor to divert money obtained from environmental litigation away from pollution cleanup programs and into the state’s general fund, where it can be used to fill budget gaps or finance corporate subsidies. The provision explicitly takes precedence over other state laws designed to direct proceeds from environmental lawsuits into New Jersey’s environmental protection programs.

Because the provision is temporary, remaining in force only until a new budget is enacted, critics say that it effectively encourages Christie’s administration to settle cases as quickly as possible to free up cash that the governor can then tap however he sees fit. The most expedient way to accelerate a settlement is to lessen the fines sought from the company facing the lawsuit.

“This is money that rightfully belongs to the people of New Jersey to make up for the injury to the environment,” said Jeffrey Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Instead, the governor is diverting it for other purposes. It’s a twofer: Reduced settlements help the oil companies before Christie’s presidential campaign, and Christie can quickly get more money for the record amounts of corporate subsidies he is handing out.”

So which answer is correct? Is the settlement a product of campaign cash, relationships or budget machinations? It is hard to say for certain, but in all likelihood it is probably a little bit of all three — plus some presidential campaign calculation sprinkled in.

In politics, as rare as it is to see a policy decision made on the substantive merits of an issue, it is even rarer that a decision is only about one thing. Most often, decisions represent a mixture of motivations. In agreeing to such a small settlement in the Exxon case, Christie placates his politically connected colleagues and gets himself some extra cash to spend on his budget’s new tax cuts. He also gives a gift to an oil industry donor just as he starts raising money for a 2016 White House bid.

Sure, the settlement may not be great policy, but it may be shrewd short-term politics. That divergence is hardly surprising — at this moment in history, good policy and good politics are not often synonymous.

David Sirota is a senior writer at the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books Hostile Takeover, The Uprising and Back to Our Future. Email him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, MD. (Gage Skidmore via Flickr)