Trump Looks for Good Cop-Bad Lieutenant at State
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. With apologies to Harvey Keitel and Abel Ferrara, the Tillerson/Bolton combo at Foggy Bottom would be more like good cop/“Bad Lieutenant.”
This is particularly true when it comes to relations with Russia. 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 stealth invasion of Ukraine. No wonder the head of the Duma’s foreign affairs committee has praised the Tillerson pick.
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-Senator Jesse Helms, who said he was “the kind of man with whom I’d want to stand at Armageddon.” Helms was the kind of man who thought Ronald Reagan was too soft of communists in the Western hemisphere.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Bolton has had it with Russia’s current leader. Before Putin even annexed Ukraine, Bolton said the U.S. should be causing him “pain” for his provocations in Syria. In July he told Fox News that European and American sanctions against Russia to punish the 2014 invasion of Ukraine were too weak.
All of this is particularly important in light of the latest 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.
In an interview aired on “Fox News Sunday,” Trump called the report “ridiculous.” His incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, went on other Sunday shows to dispute 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. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham joined with Democrats to call for a full investigation and policy response to Russia’s election hacking this weekend.
That’s important when it comes to Tillerson. Nomination fights can be tough. 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.
Senator Marco Rubio, a member of that committee, tweeted Sunday “Being a friend of Vladimir is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryofState.” McCain also has signaled his concerns about Tillerson. 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. As I wrote last week, one of his liabilities is that he is already opposed by Senator Rand Paul, who told CNN on Sunday that Bolton should not be allowed anywhere near the State Department. 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.
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