Analysis

Thumbing Nose at Alleged Kremlin Debt, Trump Picks Putin’s Pal as Secretary of State

Jerusalem bound to be disappointed by choice of Exxon CEO Tillerson, whose industry traditionally shuns Israel and prefers the Arab world.

Donald Trump  and Vladimir Putin.
Yuri Kadobno / Reuters, Evan Vucci / AP

You have to be impressed by Donald Trump’s brazenness. Less than 24 hours after the sensational Washington Post report that Russia tried to tilt the elections in his favor, Trump’s response is unequivocal and in the world’s face: he announces that his candidate for Secretary of State is Rex Tillerson, CEO of oil giant ExxonMobil and the man considered to be the closest American alive to Vladimir Putin. “He’s done tremendous deals with Russia,” Trump told Fox News on Saturday, without batting an eyelid.

>> WATCH | Rex Tillerson: 'I Have a Very Close Relationship With Putin'

Tillerson, who has managed the world’s eighth biggest company for the past decade, served for many years as Exxon’s man in Russia. He cultivated oil drills in Siberia and the Arctic and created a strategic partnership with the Kremlin-owned Rosneft oil company, which was built, among other things, on the ruins of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Yukos, after Putin was done destroying it. Tillerson opposed President Barack Obama’s sanctions against Russia after it invaded Ukraine, and made no secret of his views. In 2013, Putin showed his appreciation by bestowing own him the Russian Order of Friendship.

So maybe it’s all one, big, fat coincidence, a series of astonishingly unconnected events. Perhaps Tillerson’s appointment is not linked in any way to the CIA’s assertion that Russia intervened in the elections in Trump’s favor, that the President-elect went out of his way during the election campaign to defend Putin at any cost, that an unreasonable proportion of Trump’s campaign aides had financial and business ties to the Kremlin and that both the designated National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and his deputy K. T. MacFarland are thought to be Putin groupies. Trump will always be able to point to the appointment of former UN Ambassador John Bolton as Tillerson’s deputy, according to NBC News, as well as that of General James Mattis as Secretary of Defense: both are considered to be far more suspicious and hawkish towards Russia’s global designs.

ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, Texas April 21, 2015.
DANIEL KRAMER/REUTERS

But coincidence is the word we use when we can’t see the levers and pulleys, as science fiction writer Emma Bull noted. The preponderance of evidence points, at the very least, to the development of a tacit give-and-take relationship between Russia and Trump, in which Putin’s hackers breached the computers of the Democratic National Committee and bombarded Hillary Clinton with embarrassing leaks during the election campaign and in exchange Trump does as much for Russia as he feasibly can. The crazier and more nightmarish scenario, which cannot be completely discounted either, is that Trump is indeed Putin’s puppet, just as Clinton alleged during the third Presidential debate, that the Kremlin has leverage over the Republican winner, possibly because of debts to Russian oligarchs, and that Putin has undertaken a surreptitious takeover of the U.S. administration, upsetting the world’s balance of power in dramatic yet still unforeseen ways.

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The main criticism directed at Tillerson is that, contrary to previous Secretaries of State, he’s inexperienced in both diplomacy and government service. But he has managed a company with 75,000 workers and $250 billion in revenues and has maintained and fostered ties with many leaders, including those in the Arab world, both oil suppliers and consumers. Suzanne Maloney, former State Department official now with the Brookings Institute - who once worked for ExxonMobil - tweeted yesterday that “Oil folks know stuff: anyone who manages multi-billion dollar, multi-decade projects needs deep, nuanced understanding of political context.” Tillerson, don’t forget, will certainly have more experience than his superior, if his appointment is approved by the Senate. And his profile fits in perfectly with the collective character of Trump’s cabinet: he is an older white male with conservative views and tons of money.

Jerusalem is bound to be somewhat disappointed with Tillerson’s appointment: all the other potential candidates that had been mentioned, including Bolton, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and others, have extensive ties to Israel and to right wing American Jews and a rich history of contacts with Israeli politicians, most notably Benjamin Netanyahu. Tillerson, it seems, is a blank slate as far as Israel is concerned, with less than favorable credentials: the oil industry traditionally keeps its distance from Israel and from Jews and is far more attentive to the oil-rich Arab world. Tillerson could also prove to be a moderating force on the nuclear deal with Iran, compared to Flynn and Mattis, who are thought to be hostile. He is no fan of sanctions and his industry traditionally tries to steer clear of confrontations and hostilities in the Middle East that could upset the delicate oil market.

A woman wears a shirt reading 'Trump Putin '16' while waiting for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to speak at a campaign event at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, New Hampshire.
Dan Goldman/AP

Most of all, Tillerson’s appointment continues the bizarre and unbelievable story of Trump’s rise to power. It increasingly seems that his Presidency, like his election, will be a sort of Twilight Zone, that “lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge”, a fifth dimension “beyond that which is known to man.” And it hasn’t even started.