by Hannah Gais
Donald Trump may have finally abandoned his enthusiastic denialism surrounding Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. But if the events of the past week are any indication, the president-elect and his cabinet have quite the uphill battle ahead of them—and it’s even affecting the reception of Trump’s cabinet picks.
One confirmation is especially at risk: that of former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state. Though Tillerson’s strong ties to the Russian government have been a point of contention for some time, recent revelations regarding the Trump-Russia connection bogged down the nominee even further—and may even impede his confirmation.
The chaos began on Friday, when the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a long-awaited report, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections,” verifying Russian involvement in the 2015–2016 hacks of the Democratic National Committee. The 25-page document summarizes findings from the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Central Intelligence Agency. It explains the scope, key judgments, and implications for intelligence-gathering activities going forward.
Little about the report was surprising. Most of the DNI’s findings were a matter of public record at the time of publication. All the report offers is an endorsement of what were previously matters of speculation. We’re told that the hacks of both the DNC and RNC were conducted on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s explicit orders—a point not only reported in December but follows logically from the nature of the centralized Russian state, especially on matters of foreign policy and national security. This “influence campaign,” as the DNI dubs it, was conducted with two main goals in mind. First, the campaign was to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency,” Second, it was to “help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible.”
Although the report created a buzz within certain circles, it was handicapped by mistranslations, conjecture, a clear lack of focus, and a dearth of new information. As Masha Gessen aptly noted in The New York Review of Books, the report “suggests that the US intelligence agencies’ Russia expertise is weak and throws into question their ability to process and present information—all this, two weeks before a man with no government experience but with a short Twitter fuse takes the oath of office.” Even so, it was quite the PR challenge for a president-elect already facing a host of controversies.
From Russia with Love
Coming on the heels of the DNI report, BuzzFeed this week published a 35-page dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, a retired British intelligence officer and director of the London-based corporate intelligence firm Orbis Intelligence Ltd. (Recent rumors indicate that the report may have started as opposition research for presidential candidate Jeb Bush.) The document, which had been passed around media circles for some time, accuses the Trump team of direct cooperation with the upper echelons of the Kremlin. Beginning with a series of memos from June 2016, these admittedly unsubstantiated reports contend that the Kremlin has compiled a dossier of kompromat (or compromising material) on Trump, both of a personal (i.e., sexual) and financial nature. According to these memos, not only had the Kremlin “been feeding TRUMP and his team valuable intelligence on his opponents . . . for several years,” it had also worked closely with members of the Trump team on their shared goal of keeping Hillary Clinton out of the White House.
Despite being riddled with errors and off-putting claims, the report kicked off a firestorm. Trump and his cohort responded accordingly—the former with an all-caps tweet decrying the document as “A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!” Of particular note are the campaign’s conversations with several Russian oligarchs, including one with a close relationship to none other than Tillerson.
In a memo from July 2016, Steele describes a conversation between Trump’s then-foreign-affairs advisor Carter Page and Igor Sechin, the president of the Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft. The two reportedly discussed “the issues of future bilateral energy cooperation and prospects for an associated move to lift Ukraine-related western sanctions against Russia.” The meeting—if it indeed happened—raises some troubling questions about Tillerson as a secretary of state pick. Unlike Page, who appeared to be a bit of a nobody in Moscow, Tillerson shares a longstanding working and personal relationship with Sechin. And though Sechin and Rosneft went unmentioned throughout Tillerson’s confirmation hearing, their possible proximity to the Trump administration through its secretary of state raises a question that hung over the eight hours of questioning: Would his business—and even personal—interests cloud his judgment?
This question proved to be hard to answer, even though the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee clearly viewed it as a priority. Beginning with Senator Ben Cardin’s line of questioning on the Magnitsky Act—which punishes a group of individuals thought to have been involved in the death of investigative lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died under mysterious circumstances in a Moscow jail—the hearing was almost tailored to test whether Tillerson sympathized not only with Trump’s aggressively pro-Putin attitude but his Kremlin policy overall.
Tillerson didn’t come across as an obvious Kremlin crony. He decried the annexation of Crimea as “illegal” and noted that the military response to Russia’s actions was insufficient. “Russian leadership,” he said with the certainty of a hardline Kremlinologist, “would’ve understood a strong response.” He even dotted his testimony with a few platitudes about American power and prowess. Citing Teddy Roosevelt’s infamous affirmation—”walk softly and carry a big stick”—Tillerson contended that, because Russia responded only to force, one must carry a “stick” at all times, for “whether you use it or not becomes part of the conversation.”
Ultimately, though, the conflict between the two powers boiled down for him to the “starkly different” values between the two countries. “We’re not likely to ever be friends,” he explained. Nevertheless, “there is scope to define a different relationship that would bring down the temperature around the conflict that we have today.”
Still, despite his opening bromides about American leadership and “revitalizing” its strength, Tillerson waffled repeatedly throughout the day—and in a way that barely helped the incoming administration’s case. In one early exchange with Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), Tillerson dodged the question of whether critics of Putin “wind up dead all over the world.” “I don’t have sufficient information to make that claim,” he said calmly. The line became a mantra as Rubio continued an aggressive line of questioning on the death of Putin critics in “highly suspicious circumstances” and whether the Russian leader was a “war criminal” for carrying out a brutal, ongoing military campaign in Syria.
Though Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) did inquire as to whether Tillerson’s or Trump’s values would prevail in the future State Department, the committee focused on sanctions, not ideology. Tillerson admitted that “sanctions are a powerful tool” but danced around the question of whether he, as the head of ExxonMobil, had lobbied against Russian sanctions. Tillerson’s response created a minor uproar among the media: “I have never lobbied against sanctions—personally,” he noted. “To my knowledge, Exxon never lobbied against sanctions.”
That, as even Senator Bob Corker (R- TN) was quick to point out, is a flat-out lie. ExxonMobil has repeatedly lobbied against sanctions targeted at Iran and Russia. And for good reason: Tillerson and ExxonMobil uniquely benefited from Russia’s energy wealth. ExxonMobil under Tillerson and Rosneft under Senchin have cooperated for some time through a production agreement on Sakhalin Island in the Pacific. In 2011, ExxonMobil and Rosneft secured a $500 billion partnership between their respective companies to drill for oil in the Russian portion of the Arctic. Putin practically bragged that “the scale of the investment is very large. It’s scary to utter such huge figures.” Sanctions leveled against Russia in response to invasion of Crimea put this profitable partnership at risk. In 2014, Tillerson informed reporters that he was making his company’s discontent clear. “Our views are being heard at the highest levels,” he noted, explaining that his business activities hadn’t been hit—yet. All the more evidence, as Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) put it Tuesday, that “Exxon became the in-house lobbyist for Russia against these sanctions.”
Given the current state of U.S.-Russia relations, Tillerson’s background would have been enough, especially when paired with Trump’s bizarre bromance with Putin, to make his confirmation hearing a slog. It remains to be seen whether this week’s news cycle keeps him out of Foggy Bottom. Already, Rubio has expressed the possibility of voting against Tillerson. Will others—especially frustrated Republican hawks—do the same?