Mueller should look at why Putin pal Tillerson won’t fight Russian election meddling

The Kremlin reportedly wanted a more accommodating secretary of state than Mitt Romney.

Vladimir Putin and then ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson during happier times, in Sochi, Russia August, 30, 2011 . CREDIT: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images
Vladimir Putin and then ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson during happier times, in Sochi, Russia August, 30, 2011 . CREDIT: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

Despite his longstanding ties to Russia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has largely flown under the radar when it comes to the ongoing investigation into possible collusion between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia — until this week.

But on Monday, the New Yorker reported that “the Kremlin had intervened to block Trump’s initial choice for Secretary of State, Mitt Romney.” Romney was a Russia hawk, and Russia reportedly wanted a more accommodating secretary of state.

We also learned on Monday that Tillerson’s State Department has spent none of the $120 million it was allocated in late 2016 to combat Russian election meddling — even though the midterm elections are fast approaching. As the New York Times reporter who broke the story told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, “The remarkable thing is that the State Department and the Trump administration writ large… have really done almost nothing to counter Russian meddling in the 2018 midterm elections,”

The question is whether these two stories are connected. In other words, was Tillerson Russia’s preferred secretary of state? And if so, are the Russians in fact getting just what they wanted? And, therefore, should Special Counsel Robert Muller be looking into how Tillerson came to be nominated?

Significantly, few of the recent stories have pointed out that Tillerson has a two decade-long relationship with Russia and Putin. Indeed, at the time Trump nominated Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, he had been the director of the U.S.-Russian oil firm Neftgas since 1998.

Let’s review the key points. First, according to the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer in an as-yet unconfirmed story, former British spy Christopher Steele has reportedly discussed “a memo that he wrote in late November, 2016″ with Mueller’s team. (This brief memo is not the infamous Steele dossier that helped trigger the FBI investigation into Trump’s possible connections with the Russians.)

This memo, Mayer reports, was based on “a senior Russian official” who was “relaying talk circulating in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs” — including the bombshell allegation that after helping to block Romney, “the Kremlin, through unspecified channels, had asked Trump to appoint someone who would be prepared to lift Ukraine-related sanctions, and who would cooperate on security issues of interest to Russia, such as the conflict in Syria.”

Second, Tillerson’s actions at the State Department show a pattern of placating Russia. The agency played a key role in the administration’s refusal to enforce the sanctions on Russia that Congress enacted last August almost unanimously. Instead, State put out a statement saying “sanctions on specific entities or individuals will not need to be imposed because the legislation is, in fact, serving as a deterrent.”

And the New York Times reported that thanks to Tillerson’s actions and inaction at the State Department, none of the 23 analysts working in its Global Engagement Center, “which has been tasked with countering Moscow’s disinformation campaign, speaks Russian, and a department hiring freeze has hindered efforts to recruit the computer experts needed to track the Russian efforts.”

Tillerson himself told Fox News last month he thinks fighting Russia interference is futile. “If it’s their intention to interfere, they’re going to find ways to do that,” he said. “And we can take steps we can take, but this is something that once they decide they are going to do it, it’s very difficult to preempt it.”

Third, Tillerson has had very cozy relationship with Russia and Putin for a very long time. Way back in January 1998, Tillerson “became vice president of Exxon Ventures (CIS) Inc. and president of Exxon Neftegas Limited,” Exxon’s website explained. “In those roles, he was responsible for Exxon’s holdings in Russia,” both on land and offshore. Coincidentally, Tillerson’s position change occurred around the same time that former KGB agent Vladimir Putin began assuming more and more power, becoming Russian prime minister in 1999.

For the next two decades, Tillerson was director of Neftgas, which just happened to be based in a tax haven (the Bahamas). More recently, in 2013, Putin gave Tillerson the highest award a foreigner can receive— the Order of Friendship — for negotiating a $500 billion deal with Rosneft, Russia’s state-owned (i.e. Putin-controlled) oil company.

In other words, while Tillerson’s qualifications to be secretary of state were minimal at best, he is just the kind of guy the Kremlin would want to see in the job. So how did he get picked?

Two former secretaries of state — James Baker and Condoleezza Rice — along with former secretary of defense Robert Gates, led the way in bringing Tillerson to Trump’s attention as a potential secretary of state nominee . Rice’s and Gates’ firm consults for Exxon (though they aren’t Russophiles). Baker’s firm has not only represented Exxon, but as CNN reported in 2016, it “has also represented Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft on a deal with Exxon” related to “difficult-to-extract resources of hydrocarbons in Russia.”

Smoke doesn’t always mean a fire. But big plumes of smoke deserve an investigation. And as Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Trump officials and Russia moves forward, Tillerson’s nomination is begging for a closer look.