Dexter Filkins’ terrific New Yorker piece on US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this month included an anecdote about an exchange between Tillerson and President Trump concerning the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). For those who haven’t seen it, here’s the basic gist: In February 2017, shortly after Tillerson was sworn in as Secretary, he was meeting with Trump about an unrelated personnel matter when Trump launched into a tirade about the FCPA, and how it put US businesses at an unfair disadvantage. (That Trump holds this view is no surprise: He had expressed similar criticisms of the FCPA in public prior to his election.) But Tillerson pushed back, using an anecdote about how, when Tillerson was CEO of Exxon, senior officials from Yemen had demanded a $5 million bribe to close a deal that Exxon was pursuing in that country. Tillerson told Trump that he refused to pay, and made it clear to the Yemenis that this wasn’t how Exxon does business—and in the end Exxon got the deal anyway. According to Mr. Filkins’ source, “Tillerson told Trump that America didn’t need to pay bribes—that we could bring the world up to our own standards.”
Though it’s only a minor part of Filkins’ piece, the alleged exchange about the FCPA has attracted a fair bit of attention and commentary over the past month (see, for example, here, here, here, and here), much of it expressing or implying concern about this further evidence of President Trump’s hostility to the FCPA. It’s slightly puzzling that this anecdote is attracting more attention now, since the alleged exchange (which took place in February) was actually reported in early March—though Filkins’ piece has a little bit more detail (like the name of the country involved). Perhaps it’s because a news item about the FCPA was drowned out in early March by more pressing and immediate matters. (Trump issued the second version of his travel ban two days before the March report about the Trump-Tillerson FCPA exchange, and the federal district judge in Hawaii issued its injunction temporarily blocking enforcement of the ban a week later.) And perhaps the renewed attention to this item also has something to do with recent reports of an increasingly strained relationship between Trump and Tillerson.
Ultimately, though, it’s not so important to figure out why this anecdote is getting more attention now than it did back in March. The more interesting question is what, if anything, it reveals about the state of thinking—in government and the private sector—about the FCPA. There’s only so much that one can or should draw from a single vignette, but I do think it invites a few observations: Continue reading