There are several possible explanations for Donald Trump's frequently professed deep admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin: His esteem for authoritarian dictators as men who get things done; his desire to embarrass President Obama by claiming Putin is a better leader; his pandering to alt-right voters who admire Putin as they pine for global white nationalist domination; the possible desire to protect or expand business interests tied to Russia; the ties of Trump advisors like Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn to Russian interests; the strong evidence that Putin used cyber-hacking and fake news disinformation to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton; and, as newly reported, the unconfirmed possibility that Putin holds compromising personal and financial information about Trump.
Whatever the true reasons, Trump's love of Putin, who engages in blatant human rights abuses at home and dangerous aggression outside his borders, threatens American interests and values. The United States should continue to seek cooperation with Russia where doing so makes us stronger, just as we did during the Cold War, but we cannot sacrifice our security to the kind of improper considerations that seem to motivate Trump.
Given Trump's troubling embrace of Putin, the U.S. Senate must demand a Secretary of State who will approach Russia in a clear-eyed, principled way, who will push back on Trump's bizarre Putin love. This morning's opening of his confirmation hearing underscored that Trump's nominee, Rex Tillerson, is not that person.
Tillerson has spent more time with Putin than almost any other American, and he has developed close ties with the Russian president. Those ties are based on commerce -- on his multinational company and Russia making each other wealthier -- rather than on protecting U.S. interests.
In 2011, Tillerson reached a major deal with Russia -- not a breakthrough for peace or justice but instead an agreement between ExxonMobil and Rosneft, Russia's state oil company, to explore and drill for oil in the Siberian arctic, a deal worth tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars. In pursuing the deal, Tillerson has developed strong personal ties to Rosneft head Igor Sechin, an ex-KGB agent close to Putin.
In 2012, Russia awarded Tillerson one of its highest honors, the Order of Friendship decoration.
The Exxon deal with Rosneft was halted after the Obama Administration imposed sanctions on Russia, and on Sechin personally, in the wake of Russia's aggression in Ukraine and Crimea; Tillerson responded by expressing opposition to U.S. economic sanctions.
Pressed on this point by Senate Foreign Relations Committee members this morning, Tillerson asserted that, to his knowledge, ExxonMobil had not "directly" lobbied against sanctions against Russia. In fact the company has lobbied against Russia sanctions, and indeed lobbied just last month helped defeat legislation that would have made it harder for the Trump administration to lift the Russia sanctions, and thus harder for ExxonMobil to resume drilling. After a break in the hearing, Tillerson and committee chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) engineered a dialogue in which Tillerson tried to clarify his denial: Tillerson didn't personally lobby against sanctions but was "engaged in how the sanctions would be constructed." That didn't make much sense, or address the efforts of company lobbyists other than Tillerson.
In his prepared testimony, Tillerson repeatedly asserted that Russia poses dangers to the United States. And he has agreed to divest financially from ExxonMobil if confirmed. But he has not erased the serious risk he will see U.S. foreign policy, including regarding Russia, through the prism he has been behind for 41 years at Exxon -- where corporate earnings take precedence over U.S. security. Where making money takes precedence over human rights abuses, which has been Exxon's course in multiple countries. Where making money takes precedence over the urgent need to fight terrorism, as Exxon did in doing business with Sudan, Syria, and Iran, all under U.S. sanctions for sponsoring terrorists. And where making money takes precedence over the global environment, including the enormous threat of climate change from the burning of fossil fuels.
Although Tillerson and his company have stopped pretending in public, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, that global warming isn't real, he has continued to minimize the threat, claiming that it is "an engineering problem" that is "manageable." Meanwhile, ExxonMobil has continued funding think tanks that have questioned and denied climate change. In the wake of recent investigative reporting that demonstrated that Exxon scientists have known and told Exxon management for decades that burning fossil fuels was heating up the planet, but that Exxon instead pursued a strategy of public denial, the New York and Massachusetts attorney generals have launched fraud investigations against the company. Tillerson's ExxonMobil has responded by aggressively trying to derail these probes, through an unprecedented lawsuit against the two AGs in its home region of Dallas.
Exxon may have strong motivations for stalling the AG investigations. The Exxon-Rosneft drilling deal was made possible by global warming that has melted Arctic ice. It seems possible, then, that Tillerson's ExxonMobil was sharing with Putin's Russia its knowledge about the acceleration of climate change, as it continued to fund efforts to conceal the risks of climate change from the American people.
When asked at today's hearing by Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) if Exxon knew about climate change yet funded climate denial, Tillerson said that the question needed to be put to ExxonMobil. Asked by Kaine if he was refusing to answer or if instead he lacked the knowledge to answer, Tillerson replied, "A little of both." Then asked by Kaine if he had signed a confidentiality agreement with his company, Tillerson said, not to his knowledge. It was a slippery, evasive performance for someone seeking consent from the Senate to assume one of the most critical posts in our government.
Trump tweeted in 2012, "The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive" and during the campaign he pledged to withdraw the U.S. from the landmark Paris climate accord. When questioned by the New York Times after the election, Trump shifted, saying he had "an open mind" about the Paris agreement.
But Senators have to be concerned about Tillerson becoming Trump's point man on the Paris accord -- and the Russian sanctions. At Exxon, Tillerson has prioritized corporate profits over climate protection, human rights, and concerns about Russian aggression, and he knows that his subordinates at Exxon want to move ahead with drilling in the Arctic, dangerous gas fracking in America, and much more. (As Tillerson once said, "My philosophy is to make money. So if I can drill, and make money, that's what I want to do.)
Asked by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) today whether the Trump administration would honor the Paris agreement, Tillerson said only that his State Department would conduct a "fulsome review" of the issue and that there would be "no space" between him and Trump on the issue. Which was hardly reassuring.
Asked by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) whether he supported the new sanctions imposed by the Obama Administration for Russia's interference in the U.S. election, Tillerson tried to change the subject, saying the U.S. needed a comprehensive cybersecurity policy. When Rubio persisted, Tillerson said he would have to study the issue. When Rubio asked if Putin had committed war crimes in Syria and Chechnya, Tillerson said he would need to study that. When Rubio then asked if Putin has murdered political opponents, Tillerson said he hadn't studied that and needed to review the available classified information linking Putin to the many deaths of Russians who have crossed him.
While Tillerson's backers stress that he was recommended to Trump by former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, they don't mention that Rice and Gates run a consulting firm whose clients include ExxonMobil. That reality only adds to the concern that Tillerson's appointment is part of an overall corporate takeover of the government, where, under Trump, the interests of big companies take precedence over workers, consumers, safety, and the environment.
But as to the State Department, the dangers are even deeper. If you combine Tillerson's profit-driven affection for Russia, with Trump's own crazy love for Putin, it creates serious risk that American security interests could be compromised.
UPDATE 01-11-17 3:30 pm:
Asked by Senator Jeanne Shaheen, "Do you support a national registry for American Muslims?", Tillerson replied, "I would need to have a lot more information around how such an approach would even be constructed, and if it were a tool for vetting, then it probably extends to other people as well, other groups that are threats to the U.S."
A national registry of any group of Americans based on their religion would be repugnant to U.S. values and our Constitution. It's possible that Tillerson or the transition will claim that he misunderstood the question and perhaps thought Shaheen was referencing the entrance of Muslims from overseas. But perhaps not. Trump has denied supporting the idea of a Muslim registry, but with typical Trump confusion.
This article also appears on Republic Report.