Russia’s Tillerson Praise Underscores Debate Over Trump Pick

  • Key senators question Exxon CEO’s connections to Russia
  • Tillerson is a ‘very great professional,’ Putin aide says

Can’t Imagine Tillerson Being in Putin’s Pocket: Nye

Donald Trump’s pick of Exxon Mobil Corp. chief Rex Tillerson for secretary of state won quick praise from a key foreign policy adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, evoking concerns the president-elect’s critics have raised about whether he will be too accommodating toward Moscow.

Exxon’s chief executive officer is a “very great professional in his sphere” who is “well-known to Russian officials and was actively engaged in business cooperation,” Yuri Ushakov, a former ambassador to the U.S. who’s one of Putin’s closest aides on foreign policy, told reporters Tuesday in Moscow.

Ushakov’s comments add to statements made in recent days by Putin advisers and aides. Sergei Markov, a consultant to Putin’s staff, on Sunday called Trump’s emerging Cabinet a “fantastic team” filled with “people that Russia can do business with.” Tillerson’s possible elevation would be a “sensation,’ said Alexei Pushkov, a member of the defense and security committee of parliament’s upper house.

While foreign governments often offer generic praise about an incoming administration, the Exxon CEO has unusually strong connections to Moscow. On a personal level, Putin awarded him Russia’s Order of Friendship, a high civilian honor. Professionally, his company’s drilling rights in Russia stretch across tens of millions of acres, dwarfing its holdings in the U.S., formerly its largest drilling opportunity, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Those operations are also subject to U.S. sanctions, which he’ll have input on if confirmed for the post.

Trump and Russia

Trump has repeatedly fended off accusations -- from both Republicans and Democrats -- that he is too accommodating toward Russia, whether over accusations of hacking during the presidential campaign or in proposing cooperation in Syria’s civil war. The president-elect has said flat-out that he doesn’t believe the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia was behind hacks on Democratic Party institutions, suggesting it’s a partisan attack on his electoral victory.

At a Tuesday night rally in West Allis, Wisconsin, Trump called Tillerson “one of the greatest and most skilled global business leaders of our time.” Trump said Tillerson is friendly with leaders of countries the U.S. doesn’t get along with and that some people don’t like that.

“Rex will be a fierce advocate for America’s interests around the world,” Trump said, describing him as a “strong man, a tough man.”

Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida were among the first to say they had questions about Tillerson’s dealings with Putin after Trump’s pick was announced early Tuesday.

‘Moral Clarity’

"The next secretary of state must be someone who views the world with moral clarity, is free of potential conflicts of interest, has a clear sense of America’s interests, and will be a forceful advocate for America’s foreign policy goals to the president, within the administration, and on the world stage," Rubio said in a statement Tuesday.

McCain was even more blunt, saying he has “concerns about what kinds of business we do with a butcher, a murderer, a thug, which is exactly what Vladimir Putin is.”

It would take only one Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee joining all of the panel’s Democrats to block a Tillerson nomination in the committee. The nomination could be taken to the Senate floor despite a rejection in the committee, but that would be an unprecedented move for a Cabinet post.

Poor Relations

From Syria to Ukraine, U.S.-Russian ties have been at their lowest since the end of the Cold War. Current Secretary of State John Kerry called for an investigation into possible war crimes in Syria after a hospital bombardment earlier this year, saying that Russia and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad “owe the world more than an explanation” for the attack.

Russia in October suspended a 16-year-old treaty with the U.S. meant to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation, and Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov said the military is revisiting a 2001 decision to close bases in Cuba and Vietnam, nations Washington has been reaching out to.

While Russia and the U.S. did cooperate to forge a nuclear deal with Iran last year, Trump has criticized the agreement. A number of his senior advisers -- including incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn -- have suggested the U.S. should tear it up.

After Trump announced his selection, Tillerson said that he will focus on restoring America’s credibility on the international stage.

“We must focus on strengthening our alliances, pursuing shared national interests and enhancing the strength, security and sovereignty of the United States," Tillerson said in a statement.

‘Absurd Condition’

The Kremlin’s Ushakov said Moscow is ready for warmer ties. The country is prepared to play its part in exiting the “crisis” in relations with U.S., he said, “which we believe doesn’t satisfy the Russian or American sides -- the absurd condition that’s developed between two great superpowers”

Trump says Tillerson’s vast international experience -- the company has investments from the U.S. to the Congo -- makes him eminently qualified to be the nation’s top diplomat.

"Rex knows how to manage a global enterprise, which is crucial to running a successful State Department, and his relationships with leaders all over the world are second to none," Trump said in a statement Tuesday.

Trump made the announcement hours after he unexpectedly said he was delaying a planned statement on how he’ll separate himself from his business operations as president, from this week to January.

Gates, Rice

Trump’s team rallied support for the Tillerson selection with endorsements from two prominent members of the Republican foreign policy establishment: ex-Defense Secretary and CIA Director Robert Gates and Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state who had opposed the president-elect during the campaign. Gates noted that Exxon is a client of RiceHadleyGates LLC, the consultancy in which he and Rice are principals, but said they had long known each other.

“He would bring to the position vast knowledge, experience and success in dealing with dozens of governments and leaders in every corner of the world,” Gates, who served both Bush and President Barack Obama, said in a statement.

Reince Priebus, who has been named Trump’s chief of staff, said Tuesday on Fox News that “the truth is having relationships with people is not a bad thing,” he said. “We have a lot of problems in this world and we’re not going to solve those problems by pretending that people don’t exist.”

Rice, who had criticized Trump, wrote on Facebook in support of Tillerson.

“He will bring to the post remarkable and broad international experience; a deep understanding of the global economy; and a belief in America’s special role in the world,” Rice wrote. “He will represent the interests and the values of the United States with resolve and commitment.”

— With assistance by Joe Carroll, Arit John, Ben Brody, Jennifer Jacobs, and Henry Meyer

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