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Michael Swartz / December 16, 2016

Tillerson at State: More Questions Than Answers

His friendship with Putin will have benefits … and drawbacks.

It’s been a hallmark of President-elect Donald Trump’s transition so far: supply a willing media with a batch of politically obvious names for open positions within his cabinet and among his advisers, then pull the rug out from under everyone with a less orthodox choice.

So while the rumors and stories were circulating among the chattering class about who would run the State Department, they focused on some obvious names: Sen. Bob Corker, Rudy Giuliani, Gen. David Petraeus, John Bolton, and even uber-Trump detractor Mitt Romney were supposedly on the short list, despite the flaws and baggage each of them carried.

If you believe the report that Trump wasn’t happy with any of those prospective candidates, it’s not a shock that he went off the board. Pending confirmation, the prize will go to someone who was suggested by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates: ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, a man whom no conventional wisdom had previously considered.

Yet Tillerson did get a recommendation from other key officials besides Gates. Because of their post-political dealings, both Gates and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice knew Tillerson well and reportedly considered him a fine choice, as did former Vice President Dick Cheney. Obviously a support roster like that leads to queuing up the concern from certain quarters of the Trump coalition about the influence of George W. Bush.

But many more have noticed the close ties between Tillerson and Russia in general, and Vladimir Putin in particular. They point out that before Tillerson took the top job at Exxon, he was in charge of their Russian operations and inked an Exxon pact with the Russian oil company Rosneft for exploration there, as well as giving Rosneft the opportunity to partner with Exxon on their American projects. For his work with the Russians over the years, Tillerson was presented Russia’s Order of Friendship by Putin himself in 2013. Fairly or not, writes David French, “Tillerson is the pick least likely to ease concerns that Trump is too close to Putin,” and the current Russian election manipulation narrative will get a lot more mileage if Tillerson takes the reins.

And there’s another aspect of Tillerson’s background that raises concerns about him being America’s face to the world: Despite being the CEO of an oil company, Tillerson is in favor of a carbon tax. Exxon has also called the Paris Climate accord “an important step forward,” which makes little logical sense from the fiduciary standpoint of an energy company looking to preserve its market — although it may have been a smokescreen to throw the radical Left off their trail. So Tillerson is neither the obvious option given his lack of formal diplomatic or political experience, nor the safest of choices when it comes to the American interests of avoiding dealings with enemy nations or of not being the only nation forced to make sacrifices in the name of combating the fallacy of man-made climate change. (However, on the former point, the previous two secretaries of state had political experience aplenty, and look what they’ve done to America’s reputation and national security.)

With this choice, perhaps Donald Trump is channeling his inner Winston Churchill. In 1939, Churchill noted, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” So why not select our own riddle wrapped in a mystery? Not only that, Dick Morris came up with the interesting take of Trump “reverse-engineering” the Nixon strategy of cozying up to China as a counterweight to the Soviet Union assisting North Vietnam during the Vietnam war: working with Putin and the Russians to counterbalance China’s aggressive foreign policy in both military and economic terms. It’s already clear Trump is unafraid to make waves with China, so perhaps Tillerson is an additional reinforcement of the adage of using the enemy of one’s enemy.

A fine line is being walked when both sides of the political aisle see reasons to support and oppose a nominee. Welcome to the America of Donald Trump.

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