The “Russian hack news … is delegitimizing,” explained former George W. Bush speech writer David Frum in a recent article. The conservative Frum was famous for authoring Bush’s controversial “axis of evil” speech about the danger posed by Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.
But it appears our democracy and our children have a new axis to worry about: Putin, Trump, and ExxonMobil, whose CEO Rex Tillerson — an extreme Russophile and long-time director of a US-Russian oil company — is Trump’s puzzling choice for Secretary of State.
I say “puzzling” because the long-serving Exxon employee (from age 23!) has no qualifications to be secretary of state — other than a history negotiating major oil deals with countries like Putin’s Russia, which in any sane world would actually disqualify him or at least force a recusal from all State Department dealings with Russia.
But that puzzle disappears if we follow the famous dictum from the Watergate era for uncovering a tangled web of covert campaign acts: “Follow the money.” And perhaps another puzzle is also solved: Why did Putin take such a “fearful risk,” as Frum put it, to “mount a clandestine espionage and disinformation campaign on behalf” of Trump and against Clinton, “when Putin had every reason to expect that he probably would end up facing a President Clinton,” and a tremendous backlash.
You can certainly make a plausible case, as U.S. intelligence agencies do in their bombshell new report, that Putin had plenty of motivation to interfere. He wanted to undermine the legitimacy of U.S. elections and a Clinton Presidency, he blamed Secretary Clinton for “inciting mass protests against his regime,” and he was angry with the U.S. for the Panama Papers leaks. Those leaks showed a $2 billion trail of offshore accounts and deals that traced back to Putin and his cabal of kleptocrats, who, among other things, were getting rich “trading shares in Rosneft,” Russia’s state-owned (i.e. Putin run) oil monopoly.
But a half trillion dollars to line their pockets and prop up the Russian economy offers a much more tangible motivation for team Putin to get Trump elected. And it was Tillerson who had made the $500 billion oil deal with Putin that got blocked by sanctions.
Blocking the deal did not just “put Exxon at risk,” as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2014. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow explained last month the biggest oil deal in history was “expected to change the historical trajectory of Russia.”
The top priority for Putin and the kleptocrats who benefit from his rule is enriching the Kremlin’s coffers and their own, which have been hurt by the sanctions. And Trump’s election already appears to have delivered $11 billion to the Kremlin through sale of a 19.5 percent stake in Rosneft, “confounding expectations that the Kremlin’s standoff with the West would scare off major investors,” as Fortune has reported in a must-read piece.
Kleptocracy — and interfering with our election — pays.
So that’s why it matters so much what Trump and his cabinet do in response to the overwhelming evidence that Putin did clandestinely interfere in the election. Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin writes that if Trump doesn’t aggressively go after Putin, including working with “Congress to pass a stiff sanctions package,” and instead “sticks with Putin, he’ll have proved Putin and Trump’s critics right — he really is a patsy for Putin.”
Indeed, if Trump and Tillerson instead end the sanctions that are blocking the Exxon-Rossneft deal, it is going to look suspiciously like a half trillion dollar quid pro quo for Putin’s help getting elected.
And if Trump and Tillerson work together to kill the Paris climate deal, the last best chance to save Americans from catastrophic climate change—and a ridiculously good deal for the U.S.— that will look like they are putting Putin’s interests and Exxon’s profits above America’s national interest and the health and well-being of our children. It bears repeating that ExxonMobil’s future is inextricably tied to their stalled oil deal with Putin — and their future drilling plans would benefit from continued global warming and melting of polar ice.
Frum writes of Putin’s clandestine interference: “It’s hard to imagine a crisis of presidential legitimacy more extreme than that.” He goes further, arguing “The Russian-hacked material did damage because, and only because, Russia found a willing accomplice in the person of Donald J. Trump.”
Trump tweeted on Saturday that only “stupid” people or “fools” are against a partnership with Russia:
Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only "stupid" people, or fools, would think that it is bad! We…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 7, 2017
The truth is that if Trump ends the sanctions and works with Russia against global climate action, it will destroy whatever legitimacy he might have left.