Donald Trump’s leading candidate for secretary of state, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, would accelerate the president-elect’s collision course with Congress over his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and raise new questions about Putin’s role in the election.
Tillerson, whom Trump officials now call the front-runner for America’s top diplomatic job, has spent hours with Putin negotiating billions of dollars in Russian oil projects, and is believed to be on friendlier terms with the Russian autocrat than all but a handful of Americans.
The potential selection of a Putin friend for the critical post is raising alarm in both parties that Trump intends to act on his campaign talk of refashioning a U.S.-Russian relationship now at its most adversarial point since the end of the Cold War.
Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are likely to mount aggressive opposition to Tillerson, according to sources familiar with their thinking.
“I don’t know what Mr. Tillerson’s relationship with Vladimir Putin was,” McCain said in a Saturday interview with Fox News. “But I’ll tell you it is a matter of concern to me.”
On Friday, McCain’s former longtime chief of staff, Mark Salter, tweeted that Tillerson would “sell out NATO for [Russian] oil and his pal, Vlad. Should be a rough confirmation hearing, and a no vote on the Senate floor.”
Democrats are also pledging a rough path to confirmation.
“The Putin relationship will be a major focus” of any Tillerson confirmation hearings, said a Senate Democratic aide. “Tillerson and the company opposed sanctions efforts on Russia, he has received an award from Putin, and has done extensive oil business generally in the country,” the aide said.
In a Saturday afternoon statement, a Democratic National Committee spokesman called Trump’s presumed choice Tillerson “outrageous,” calling it “another victory for Vladimir Putin, who interfered in our election to help elect Trump and now has a close ally with no foreign policy experience serving as America’s top diplomat.”
Tillerson’s rising stock at Trump Tower comes at a particularly volatile moment. On Friday, U.S. officials disclosed that the CIA has concluded Putin’s government sought to influence the November presidential election in Trump’s favor. On Friday night, Trump’s office issued a defiant statement saying that U.S. intelligence officials are “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction” and that it’s “time to move on.”
But Democrats and many Republicans are not ready to do so. Also on Friday, President Barack Obama’s homeland security advisor, Lisa Monaco, said that Obama has ordered an intelligence review of election-related Russian hacking. The findings of that report could fuel planned GOP hearings on Russian cyber activities. Incoming Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer is also demanding bipartisan congressional action on the issue early next month, POLITICO reported Saturday.
“[I]f they’re able to disrupt elections, then it’s a national security issue, obviously,” McCain told reporters on Friday. He has been the most outspoken critic of a potential thaw with Russia, issuing a statement days after last month’s election warning that “the price of another ‘reset’” with Russia “is unacceptable.” (Obama and his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, pursued a Russia “reset” policy in his first term, though his counterpart at the time was not Putin but then-Russian President Dimitri Medvedev.)
A confirmation hearing for Tillerson would surely involve tough questions about his connection to Putin, who awarded Tillerson and several other energy executives an Order of Friendship medal in 2012.
“I agree, as you point out, that nothing strengthens relationships between countries better than business enterprise,” Tillerson told Putin during a June 2012 meeting at an oil refinery on Russia’s Black Sea coast.
Western sanctions on Moscow, imposed as punishment for Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his support for a pro-Russian insurgency in Ukraine’s east, have hit ExxonMobil hard. Tillerson, who became the company’s CEO in 2006 after starting his career as a production engineer there in 1975, signed agreements with Moscow to explore or drill in Siberia, the Black Sea and the Russian Arctic.
The sanctions have halted Exxon projects in the country, including a $700-million joint venture with the Russian oil giant Rosneft to drill in the Arctic Kara Sea. In a 2015 SEC filing, the company estimated its maximum potential losses due to western sanctions at $1 billion.
Tillerson is hardly the only western executive to do business with Putin, whose country is one of the world’s largest energy exporters. And his big deals with Moscow occurred before Putin’s 2014 seizure of Crimea began a new period of hostility with Washington.
Still, Tillerson could face hard questions from several GOP Russia hawks who sit on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which must vote to advance any secretary of state nomination to the full Senate. They include Florida’s Marco Rubio, who has called Putin “a gangster and a thug”; Wyoming’s John Barrasso, who has complained of Putin’s “belligerence”; and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, who said in October that the U.S. “should really have physically gone in” to Ukraine to defend it from Russian aggression.
Tillerson could also be an awkward fit with Trump’s pick for defense secretary, James Mattis. The retired Marine general told an audience at Washington’s Heritage Foundation in May of 2015 that the threat from Russia “is much more severe and much more dangerous than we have acknowledged.”
Other reported top candidates for Trump’s secretary of state also take a dim view of Putin, including former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, retired Army general and former CIA director David Petraeus, and retired Navy admiral James Stavridis.
The idea that Trump might dictate the U.S.-Russia relationship is a source of enormous frustration to congressional Democrats, and particularly former aides to Clinton’s presidential campaign, who have been impatient to see the Obama White House take stronger action in response to what the intelligence community has concluded was the Kremlin-backed hacking of Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign emails.
While the CIA believes Russia was actively working to elect Trump—which would be consistent with a strongly anti-Clinton, pro-Trump bent in Kremlin-backed media—the New York Times reported in October that FBI and other intelligence officials reportedly believed that Russia was only trying to disrupt the U.S. election.
“One would also have to be willfully blind not to see that these Russian actions were uniformly damaging to Secretary Clinton and helpful to Donald Trump. I do not believe this was coincidental or unintended,” Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement Saturday. Schiff called for a “thorough investigation” by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.”
Though the hacked Democratic emails lacked a bombshell revelation, they created a steady drumbeat of embarrassing and negative stories—including several about the machinations of the controversial Clinton Foundation—that distracted from Clinton’s message and fueled GOP attacks against her. In the view of some Democrats, those revelations may have tilted the electoral balance in Trump’s favor. Clinton currently holds a 2.7 million vote lead in the popular vote, but Trump carried the Electoral College thanks to narrow wins in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania by a cumulative total of little more than 100,000 votes.
Clinton aides remain furious that media coverage focused on the emails themselves and not the Russian role in their release, mostly via the website WikiLeaks.
Many Democrats and Obama administration officials would like to see stronger White House action to punish Putin for staging what some believe was a kind of soft coup. Some fantasize about seeing Putin’s reputed vast wealth exposed through leaked documents.
“Whether you attack us by MiG (fighter jet) or by mouse, it’s an attack. It requires a response. It’s clear that they were responsible for the cyber attack on our country in this past election,” Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters in mid-November.
Their hopes were raised when Vice President Joe Biden, in a mid-October interview, said with a grin that the U.S. would respond “at the time of our choosing, and under the circumstances that have the greatest impact.”
But officials say Obama’s options are limited.
The White House fears that Putin is likely more willing to escalate such a conflict. More importantly, they say he would have an advantage in a widening cyber war because the U.S. and Western Europe are far more integrated into the internet—making them more vulnerable targets than Russian government and industry.
Obama has also been openly wary about the precedent of a cyber war.
After a September meeting with Putin in China last month, in which he is believed to have raised the DNC email hack, Obama said he was wary of “a cycle of escalation” in the cyber realm.
“What we cannot do is have a situation in which suddenly this becomes the wild, wild West, where countries that have significant cyber capacity start engaging in unhealthy competition or conflict through these means,” Obama said.
Obama could impose new sanctions on Russia or its top officials through executive orders. But Trump could reverse them with a stroke of his pen next month.
Powered by WPeMatico