Trump’s pick of oil industry chief Rex Tillerson as the next Secretary of State is an encouraging sign that the president-elect is indeed following through on campaign promises to mend bilateral ties with Russia.
But the war hawks within the Republican and Democrat parties could yet throw a spanner in the works over the nomination.
Immediately, the news of Tillerson’s nomination drew insinuations that the outcome was «more evidence» that Russia had interfered in the US election to sway the result for Trump over Democrat rival Hillary Clinton.
Sixty-four-old Rex Tillerson has been head of oil and gas giant Exxon Mobil for the past 10 years. The US-based multinational firm is rated as the biggest oil company in the world. Under its Texas-born CEO, Exxon has developed extensive industrial partnerships with Russia’s oil sector. In 2011, the company signed a mammoth deal worth $500 billion with Russia’s number-one oil firm Rosneft for drilling projects in the Arctic. It has other exploration contracts in Russia’s Siberia and Black Sea.
That partnership was crimped in 2014 when the US government slapped economic and diplomatic sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine crisis. Tillerson is on record expressing his opposition to the sanctions, although Exxon has so far complied with the legal order to suspend ties with Russia. It can be expected that as Secretary of State – the US’s top diplomatic position – Tillerson will rescind those sanctions and seek to normalize relations between Washington and Moscow. His stock-holding interests with Exxon will no doubt stir controversy as a «conflict of interest» in his running of US foreign policy.
A normalizing of US-Russia relations under Tillerson would be fully consonant with Donald Trump’s own stated position of wanting to improve bilateral ties, which over the past two years have deteriorated abysmally to the point of risking an all-out war between the two nuclear powers.
Trump unabashedly referred to Tillerson’s extensive links with Russian business and government as an endorsement for his selection as Secretary of State.
«I have chosen one of the truly great business leaders of the world, Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, to be Secretary of State», said Trump.
Of significance, the president-elect added: «[Mr Tillerson] will be a forceful and clear-eyed advocate for America’s vital national interests, and help reverse years of misguided foreign policies and actions that have weakened America’s security and standing in the world».
Like billionaire property magnate Trump, Tillerson has no official political experience. The pair reportedly only became acquainted since Trump’s shock election victory on November 8. Tillerson was recommended to Trump by the former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, according to the Washington Post. Over the course of several recent meetings the two men hit it off, perhaps recognizing similar traits in each other’s personality for putting pragmatic business sense before ideological considerations.
Other names in the mix for possible Secretary of State nomination were former Republican candidate Mitt Romney and ex-CIA chief General David Petraeus. Both would have taken a hostile policy towards Russia. So, the fact that Tillerson was in the end selected by Trump shows that he is determined to follow through on his aspiration to better relations with Russia.
It was a bold decision too. In the days before the nomination was made official, US political figures and media pundits were clamoring with concern about Tillerson’s apparent cordial attitude towards Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the Russian state.
American media have been flagging past photos of Tillerson smiling in friendly greetings with Putin. Much is being made of the Exxon boss having been awarded an Order of Friendship by the Russian president in 2013, two years after the oil company signed the mega deal with Rosneft for Arctic drilling. It was also reported that Tillerson attended an international business summit earlier this year in Russia – in defiance of US government advice not to attend due to its sanctions policy towards Moscow.
Trump’s announcement also comes amid heightened claims that Russian-backed hackers intervened in the US presidential elections to sway his victory over Clinton. Last week, the Washington Post and New York Times ran sensational reports that the CIA had concluded that Russian hackers helped Trump win the presidency by spreading damaging information on Clinton’s involvement in corruption and other scandals. Earlier this week, on the back of those claims, the Obama White House and US Congress have ordered a formal investigation to ascertain the CIA allegations of Russian interference.
Trump’s selection of Tillerson has predictably been invoked as further «evidence» that the Kremlin hacked into the US electoral process in order to put him in the White House.
Largely absent from the brouhaha is the fact that there is no evidence to prove Russia did indeed carry out the hacking of Clinton’s emails or that it did so to influence the election. Russia has repeatedly rejected the claims.
For Trump’s part, he has dismissed the latest anonymous and unverified CIA allegations as «ridiculous». Pointedly, the president-elect has also disclosed that he is rebuffing the intelligence agency’s customary «daily briefings», implying that that they are a waste of his time. That, in turn, suggests that the CIA will dredge up more dirty tricks to discredit Trump as a «Russian stooge». And large sections of the US media which openly favored Clinton will be only too willing to oblige the smearing of Trump.
The nomination of Tillerson to head the State Department is certainly an unusual choice. The multi-millionaire oil chief, who will step down from his Exxon position if officially appointed, does not have the customary Washington political experience. His would-be replacement, John Kerry, was previously a long-time Senator and a consummate political insider. Many critics would say that background was why Kerry was so ineffectual as a diplomat and such a willing tool for Washington’s ideological agenda to antagonize Russia.
But Tillerson’s professional and personal ties with Russia make him a qualified choice to restore balanced relations between Washington and Moscow. It follows that if such an improvement were to prevail then European governments would follow suit in normalizing their relations too.
However, the Exxon CEO is far from a shoo-in for the top diplomatic post. His nomination will have to be cleared by the US Senate. Already, there has been strident objections to Tillerson’s selection from members of the powerful Senate Committee on Foreign Relations precisely because of his alleged friendly connections with Russia. Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the committee, deprecated Tillerson’s selection by saying, «being a friend of Vladimir Putin is not an attribute».
It can be anticipated that the Washington establishment of Republicans and Democrats, who tend to harbor Russophobia and Cold War animosity, will capitalize on CIA claims of Russian «electoral subversion» to whip up opposition to Trump’s pick of Tillerson.
And it’s not just Tillerson who might end up being thwarted. Donald Trump does not become the 45th president until the Electoral College officially passes all its votes on December 19. He would then be inaugurated later in January.
The all-decisive Electoral College is coming under increasing pressure to reverse its earlier votes favoring Trump for the presidency. The intervention by the CIA making sensational claims about Russian interference to help Trump into the White House is reportedly giving some members of the Electoral College misgivings about their erstwhile vote for the Republican candidate.
Such is the level of reality-disconnect in US politics, the selection of Rex Tillerson may actually fuel paranoia that Trump is the alleged Manchurian Candidate that the Clinton campaign and its establishment backers tried to make so much of during the campaign.
Nevertheless, whether Trump’s presidential ambitions eventually become unstuck or not, one can at least give him credit for now that he is sticking to his promise of restoring relations with Russia. Rex Tillerson is the proof of that.