Good cop, bad cop for State Department
The winners of “America’s Next Top Diplomat” appear to be in. If reports over the weekend are correct, President-elect Donald Trump will tap Exxon’s chief executive officer Rex Tillerson to be his secretary of state, and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, to be Tillerson’s deputy.
To say that this would represent a good cop/bad cop combination is an understatement.
Let’s start with Tillerson. In 2012, Russian president Vladimir Putin presented the oilman with his country’s “order of friendship.” As the journalist Julia Ioffe reported on Friday, Tillerson lobbied the State Department against sanctions on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.
Contrast this with Bolton. When he served as undersecretary of state in George W. Bush’s first term, he hung a framed copy in his office of a Tehran newspaper denouncing him as the devil’s spawn. In 2009, he was introduced at an event by then-Sen. Jesse Helms, who said he was “the kind of man with whom I’d want to stand at Armageddon.”
Before Putin even annexed Ukraine, Bolton said the U.S. should be causing him “pain” for his provocations in Syria. In July he said that sanctions against Russia to punish the 2014 invasion of Ukraine were too weak.
All of this is important in light of reports from CIA that Russia not only tried to interfere in last month’s presidential election, but that they did so with the intention of aiding Trump’s election. Trump called the report “ridiculous.” His incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, disputed the claim in The New York Times that the Republican National Committee was successfully hacked by the Russians.
The U.S. intelligence community disagrees on whether Russia intended to elect Trump, but there is consensus that Russia hacked Democrats to interfere with the election. Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham joined with Democrats to call for a full investigation.
That’s important when it comes to Tillerson. Senate staffers tell me Exxon will have to make significant disclosures on its Russian business to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is chaired by one of the finalists for the position, Bob Corker.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of that committee, tweeted Sunday, “Being a friend of Vladimir is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryofState.” If Rubio, McCain, Graham and others in the GOP oppose Tillerson, he will likely lose a nomination fight, considering how many Democrats are likely to block the Exxon chief on environmentalist grounds.
This is an irony for Bolton. One of his liabilities is that he is already opposed by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Democrats would only need to pick off two more Republicans to sink a Bolton nomination.
But the logic against Bolton also applies to Tillerson. If the boss of Exxon cannot persuade Graham, McCain and Rubio he will be a bad lieutenant when it comes to Russia, Tillerson may be in trouble. Democrats these days are in no mood to help Vladimir Putin’s friends.