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Rex Tillerson and Donald Trump’s Russia Problem

The president-elect may nominate the Exxon Mobil CEO to serve as secretary of state. That’s where things get out of control.
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If President-elect Donald Trump’s picks for his administration’s cabinet are meant to continue his campaign strategy of trolling the American political establishment, he’s doing a bang-up job.

After selecting a climate-change denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency and a fast-food CEO to oversee the American workforce as secretary of labor, the New York Times reported that Trump would likely select Exxon Mobil president and CEO Rex Tillerson to serve as secretary of state, the chief diplomat of the United States and the country’s voice in foreign affairs abroad. Trump selected Tillerson for his reputation as a “skillful manager [who] personally knows many foreign leaders through his dealings on behalf of the energy giant,” according to the Washington Post.

The decision was met with fierce criticism not just by Democrats concerned about the surfeit of billionaires occupying key spots in the Trump administration without any public service experience — that includes Tillerson himself, which would be a first among modern secretaries of state, according to the Post — but by leading Republicans lawmakers as well, many of whom expressed anxiety over Tillerson’s close relationship with the Russian government. According toNew Yorker staff writer Steve Coll, the author of Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, Tillerson “has forged close relations with both President Vladimir Putin and Igor Sechin, the close Putin ally who runs Rosneft, one of Russia’s oil-and-gas giants.”

In 2012, Tillerson negotiated a deal reportedly worth more than $500 billion with Putin and Rosneft to develop crude oil reserves in the Arctic; Putin awarded Tillerson the country’s Order of Friendship decoration the following year. There’s even video of Tillerson and Putin sharing a champagne toast after closing the deal. As the Wall Street Journalput it: “Friends and associates said few U.S. citizens are closer to Mr. Putin than Mr. Tillerson.”

Incoming Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus pushed back against these concerns on a Sunday appearance on Meet the Press. “It’s not just business deals, it’s an extensive knowledge of our relationships across the globe, and extensive knowledge of international law, and extensive knowledge of how deals are put together in places of the world that are very sensitive, and intergovernmental relationships that are very unique to Rex Tillerson,” Priebus said.

While there’s certainly potential for Tillerson’s connections to Putin to help mediate rocky relations between Russia and the U.S., his appointment represents a major conflict of interest in an administration already rife with them. Tillerson’s 40-year career at the largest oil conglomerate in the world — one that suffered more than $1 billion in damages to its joint deal with Rosneft as a result of U.S. and European Union post-Crimea sanctions — may imperil the U.S. government’s role in keeping Russia’s geopolitical aspirations in check, both in Eastern Europe and beyond. Exxon told Reuters in April that it will return to its joint venture “once sanctions against Moscow are lifted.” Tillerson could now find himself in a position to expedite that process.

Exxon told Reuters in April that it will return to its joint venture “once sanctions against Moscow are lifted.” Tillerson could now find himself in a position to expedite that process.

Concerns about Tillerson’s relationship with Russian officials come amid another Cold War-flavored flash of geopolitical anxiety. A bombshell report by the Washington Post alleges that a “secret assessment” by the Central Intelligence Agency concluded the Russian government meddled in the 2016 presidential election to explicitly aid Trump’s ascension to the presidency.

The report, which builds on earlier claims that Russian operatives were working to “sow public distrust in the upcoming presidential election and in U.S. political institutions,” alleges that Russian officials were responsible for providing WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. The New York Timesreported that Russian operatives also hacked the Republican National Committee, but didn’t release any files, more evidence of a coordinated effort to facilitate Trump’s rise — or at least Clinton’s downfall, as a former U.S. ambassador to Russia suggested on Sunday.

The specter of foreign meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign is a matter of bipartisan concern, according to a joint statement by Republican and Democratic leaders Sunday. “While protecting classified material, we have an obligation to inform the public about recent cyberattacks that have cut to the heart of our free society,” they wrote. “This cannot become a partisan issue. The stakes are too high for our country.”

Trump himself dismissed the CIA report as “ridiculous,” putting him at odds with not only his fellow Republicans but also the national security establishment he will rely on once he assumes the presidency. Such an abrupt dismissal is especially alarming in light of Trump’s financial ties to Russia, not to mention his objectively pro-Russian policy proposals.

Now, it’s still possible Tillerson doesn’t get the job. Trump spokesman Jason Miller said Saturday that an official decision on the post would come this week “at the earliest.” Trump himself cast doubt on Tillerson’s confirmation in a Sunday tweet, praising the Exxon chief as a “world class … dealmaker” on the global stage “whether I choose him or not.”

But based on the cabinet appointments thus far, it’s likely Trump will stay the course. There are two possible explanations for this. First, it’s a deliberate political calculation: Trump and his transition team are betting that by appointing a massively pro-business cabinet — Scott Pruitt at the EPA to roll back cumbersome environmental regulations, Andy Puzder at Labor to ignore growing calls for a higher minimum wage, and Tillerson at State to make the aggressive exploitation of foreign markets America’s chief diplomatic mission — they’ll unleash the animalspirits of American business restless for growth after eight years of Barack Obama-era policies.

A second, more alarming explanation: Trump and his political allies have so deeply internalized the conspiratorial, anti-Establishment-at-all-costs worldview that catapulted him to an Election Day victory that they’ve abandoned any and all semblance of political logic. But this may be less a symptom of insanity and more a function of Trump’s existence in permanent campaign mode, which runs on a message that says the entire political establishment (including relatively apolitical intelligence agencies) is in cahoots to undermine his legitimacy. Only he can drain the swamp — with his billionaire allies, of course.