If just three Senate Republicans defect, Rex Tillerson’s expected nomination as secretary of state would be dead. Since he has not officially announced his selection, blowback from leading hawks on the right over the ExxonMobil CEO’s ties to Vladimir Putin could prompt President-elect Donald Trump to go another direction.
— Three Republicans who have themselves run against the president fired shots across the bow on Sunday:
Marco Rubio: “Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a Secretary of State.”
Lindsey Graham: “I don’t know the man much at all, but let’s put it this way: If you received an award from the Kremlin, ‘the order of friendship,’ then we’re gonna have to do some talkin’. We’ll have some questions. I don’t want to prejudge the guy, but that’s a bit unnerving.”
John McCain: “It’s a matter of concern to me that he has such a close relationship with Vladimir Putin, that that would color his approach to Vladimir Putin and the Russian threat.”
— A longtime confidant to the Arizona senator added this on Twitter:
— From one of our congressional reporters who spent the weekend working the phones:
— Terrible timing for Tillerson: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell scooped Saturday that the 64-year-old had won “The Apprentice: Foggy Bottom edition,” just hours after The Washington Post revealed that the CIA had concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system. Three people close to the transition team confirmed Saturday afternoon to The Post that Trump is expected to name Tillerson.
— In case you missed it, here is some background on his ties to Putin and his cronies: “In the 1990s, Tillerson oversaw an Exxon project on Russia’s Sakhalin island and developed a working relationship with Putin. In 2011, Exxon signed an agreement with the state-controlled oil company, Rosneft, to work jointly on oil exploration and development in the Arctic and Siberia. After inking the deal in New York, Tillerson and Rosneft chairman and Putin confidant Igor Sechin dined on caviar at the luxury Manhattan restaurant Per Se,” Steven Mufson and Philip Rucker report. “The next day, they gave oil analysts black pens with the date of the agreement engraved in gold. Two years later, the Kremlin awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship, an honor reserved for foreigners.”
— This confirmation fight would become the proxy for a broader debate about Russian interference in the American election. That is a debate Trump does not want to have.
— Reinforcing this, Trump even cited Tillerson’s relationship with Putin as an asset. “To me, a great advantage is he knows many of the players, and he knows them well. He does massive deals in Russia,” the president-elect said on “Fox News Sunday,” adding that Rex is “a world-class player.” In the same interview, he argued that the CIA’s conclusion is “ridiculous” and he does not “believe it at all.”
— But Trump, during that Fox interview and then on Twitter, spoke as if Tillerson is not a done deal, giving himself an out and easy way to save face.
— Similarly, no Senate Republican has come out as a hard “no” yet. Even McCain is leaving himself some wiggle room to capitulate.
— Right now Trump is testing congressional Republicans to see if they are really as big of push overs as he kept telling voters throughout the primaries. That’s plainly what he was doing with his talk about tariffs last week, gauging the response carefully. He will keep pushing the boundaries further and further until conservatives get the backbone to oppose him. If the GOP ultimately falls in line on Tillerson, Trump’s takeaway will be that he doesn’t need to worry about being constrained by his adopted party. This is how he thinks about the world.
— Republicans are testing Trump too. Does he back off at the first sign of pressure or double down?
— Rubio’s skeptical tweet is especially significant because he is one of 10 GOP members on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which must clear Tillerson before he can get an up-or-down vote on the floor. Republicans only have one more member on that committee than the Democrats, so Rubio could singlehandedly torpedo Tillerson if he chose to.
A “no” vote would be a good way for Rubio, who wants to run again for president in 2024, to show movement conservatives that he’s still principled. He constantly promised to be a check on Trump as he sought reelection in Florida this year. Recall that, back in October, the senator also warned Republicans not to talk about John Podesta’s hacked emails. “I will not discuss any issue that has become public solely on the basis of Wikileaks,” Rubio said at the time. “As our intelligence agencies have said, these leaks are an effort by a foreign government to interfere with our electoral process and I will not indulge it. I want to warn my fellow Republicans who may want to capitalize politically on these leaks. Today it is the Democrats. Tomorrow it could be us.”
— Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is also on Foreign Relations, and Tillerson is the kind of globalist that libertarians are so uncomfortable with.
— Jeff Flake, another member of the committee, is up for reelection in 2018 in Arizona. If McCain broke against Tillerson, it is hard to see him not following suit.
— What about the other seven Republicans on the committee? Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, Tennessee, who was himself a finalist to be secretary of state, responded favorably, tweeting: “If it is Rex Tillerson, he is a very impressive individual.”
The rest are party loyalists with safe seats who can pretty reliably be counted on to do whatever they are told by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky: Wyoming’s John Barrasso (who is number four in party leadership), Idaho’s James Risch, Georgia’s Johnny Isakson and David Perdue and Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson (who just got reelected). Similarly, Cory Gardner will be reluctant to upset the energy industry, not just because he’s from Colorado but because as NRSC chairman he’ll need to aggressively hit up oil executives for money the next two years.
— In the full Senate, also watch someone like Susan Collins, who could use a no vote to bolster her independent credentials if she runs for governor of Maine in 2018.
— Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the nominee for attorney general, is not heeding calls to recuse himself from voting for his potential cabinet colleagues, as would be customary, because the margin of error is so small.
— Democratic leadership aides feel pretty good about keeping their members in line. They’re always going to have to worry about someone like Joe Manchin, W.Va., caving, especially now that he’s in cycle (he’s meeting with Trump in New York Monday), but the liberal base badly wants at least one scalp for cathartic reasons. Marine Gen. Jim Mattis was theoretically the best Trump pick to target because of his need for a waiver to become Defense secretary, but a lot of Democrats respect him and think he’s independent enough to stand up to Trump. He’s also publicly against torture, which works bigly in his favor as he tries to avoid a confirmation battle.
— The Dems on Foreign Relations are coalescing in opposition to Tillerson. Ben Cardin, Maryland, the ranking member, said on CNN that he’s “concerned” about his “relationship with Russia” and wants to make sure the nation’s chief diplomat puts U.S. interests first. Bob Menendez, N.J., went much further, called Tillerson’s nomination “alarming and absurd” in a much harsher statement. “With Rex Tillerson as our Secretary of State, the Trump administration would be guaranteeing Russia has a willing accomplice in the President’s Cabinet guiding our nation’s foreign policy,” the New Jersey senator said. “The term ‘conflict of interest’ doesn’t even begin to describe the web of dubious business interests and bank accounts that Tillerson and his company Exxon shares with Vladimir Putin and Russian oil companies. Having no practical experience in diplomacy, Mr. Tillerson has no proven knowledge or regard for the norms and necessities that so much of our modern diplomatic and security efforts depend upon.”
— As a consequence of Harry Reid’s short-sighted decision to invoke the nuclear option in 2014, Tillerson only needs 50 votes, instead of 60, to take over Foggy Bottom. The GOP has 52 seats, and Vice President-elect Mike Pence would provide the tie-breaking vote.
— But even if he ultimately made it through, Tillerson’s confirmation hearings at the very least would be brutal. All of Exxon’s deals would come under the microscope, especially the ones that have been adversely affected by the U.S. sanctions that were imposed on Russia after its illegal invasion of Crimea. Exxon claims these sanctions cost it $1 billion a year.
“Exxon discovered oil in a well it drilled in the Kara Sea, but the joint partnership was put on ice after Russian intervention in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea led to international economic sanctions,” Mufson and Rucker note. “As secretary of state, Tillerson, who has been critical of the sanctions, would be in a position to argue for easing them, which could allow Exxon to resume operations. And for a company the size of Exxon, few countries outside of Russia hold sufficient potential to bolster the oil giant’s reserves. In addition to the Arctic, Exxon wants to drill in the deep waters of the Black Sea and search for shale oil in West Siberia. In each case, the company would be providing expertise and technology that Russia lacks. ‘Russia is critical for Exxon,’ said Fadel Gheit, an oil analyst for Oppenheimer & Co.”
— Tillerson’s personal stake in Exxon is more than $150 million. Because much of this is via stock options that do not mature for a while, he cannot easily divest or put everything in a blind trust. How will he not think of his company’s interests in 50 countries and on six continents as he negotiates on behalf of the U.S.?
— The bigger issue, though, would be questions about where Tillerson’s true loyalties lie. The CEO is a major character in Steve Coll’s excellent 2012 book on Exxon, “Private Empire.” Coll, the dean of the Columbia Journalism School, describes Tillerson’s selection as “astonishing on many levels” in a new piece for the New Yorker. “As an exercise of public diplomacy, it will certainly confirm the assumption of many people around the world that American power is best understood as a raw, neocolonial exercise in securing resources,” he writes. “It is hard to imagine, after four decades at ExxonMobil and a decade leading the corporation, how Tillerson will suddenly develop respect and affection for the American diplomatic service he will now lead, or embrace a vision of America’s place in the world that promotes ideals for their own sake, emphatically privileging national interests over private ones.”
The main theme of Steve’s book is that ExxonMobil sees itself as an independent, transnational corporate sovereign, with power independent of the American government, and devoted firmly to shareholder interests. “Exxon’s foreign policy sometimes had more impact on the countries where it operated than did the State Department,” he explains. “Take, for example, Chad, one of the poorest countries in Africa. During the mid-two-thousands, the entirety of U.S. aid and military spending in the country directed through the U.S. Embassy in the capital, N’Djamena, amounted to less than twenty million dollars annually, whereas the royalty payments Exxon made to the government as part of an oil-production agreement were north of five hundred million dollars. Idriss Déby, the authoritarian President of Chad, did not need a calculator to understand that Rex Tillerson was more important to his future than the U.S. Secretary of State.”
“In Kurdistan, during the Obama Administration, Tillerson defied State Department policy and cut an independent oil deal with the Kurdish Regional Government, undermining the national Iraqi government in Baghdad. ExxonMobil did not ask permission. After the fact, Tillerson arranged a conference call with State Department officials and explained his actions, according to my sources, by saying, ‘I had to do what was best for my shareholders.'”
Because oil projects require huge amounts of capital and only pay off fully over decades, Tillerson has favored doing business in countries that offer political stability, even if this stability was achieved through authoritarian rule:
“The right kinds of dictators can be more predictable and profitable than democracies. ExxonMobil has had more luck making money in Equatorial Guinea, a small, oil-rich West African dictatorship that has been ruled for decades by a single family, than in Alaska, where raucous electoral politics has made it hard for Exxon to nail down stable deal terms.”
“Although ExxonMobil hires former State Department, Pentagon, and C.I.A. officials from time to time in order to bolster its political analysis and negotiations, some of the Exxon executives I interviewed spoke about Washington with disdain, if not contempt,” Coll writes. “They regarded the State Department as generally unhelpful, a bureaucracy of liberal career diplomats who were biased against oil and incompetent when it came to sensitive and complex oil-deal negotiations. They managed Congress defensively, and as just one capital among many in the world, a place more likely to produce trouble for Exxon than benefits.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · James Hohmann