Tillerson, Putin, and Trump

As I suggested this morning, the proper approach to the nomination of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State is open-mindedness. There seem to be legitimate concerns about his relationship with Vladimir Putin, but let’s wait and see what he and others say to allay the concerns before reaching a conclusion.

In the meantime, I offer two observations. First, much will be made of Tillerson winning the Kremlin’s Order of Friendship in 2012. Sen. Marco Rubio has tweeted: “Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I’m hoping for from a Secretary of State.”

It’s a good line. But remember, Tillerson wasn’t a “friend of Vladimir” as Secretary of State; he was a friend of the Russian strongman as head of Exxon-Mobil.

Being a friend of Vladimir is an attribute one would hope for in a head of Exxon-Mobil. It was in the interest of the company that Tillerson get along well with Putin. Exxon-Mobil shareholders probably considered it a coup that their CEO won an award from the Kremlin.

The fact that Tillerson got along well with Putin when it was in the interest of his company to do so doesn’t mean that, as Secretary of State, he would get along well with Putin if doing so were not in his country’s interest.

Second, it’s not unreasonable to view the fact that Tillerson had lots of dealings with Putin as a plus. The last two administrations both were terribly naive at the outset in dealing with Putin. In July 2001, President Bush said of Putin, approvingly, “I looked the man in the eye; I was able to get a sense of his soul.” In 2009, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton gave us the infamous Russian reset.

It seems unlikely that Tillerson will make this kind of mistake. Having engaged in demanding negotiations with Putin, he surely knows what kind of man he’s dealing with. He is likely to provide Trump with a far more realistic advice about Putin than Trump’s predecessors received. And knowing that Tillerson has loads of experience with Putin, Trump is likely to take the advice seriously.

If Tillerson had been chosen by a president-elect Cruz or Rubio, I wouldn’t have many qualms about the selection. But Trump’s statements about Putin, for example the ones about working with Russia in Syria, justify extra scrutiny for a nominee with ties to Russia. The real problem, though, is Trump not Tillerson.

Indeed, as I suggested above, Tillerson may be the solution to the problem. A hard-headed adviser who knows Putin well and whom Trump has confidence in might help our new president assess the Russian threat more realistically than he currently appears to. Maybe that’s why Dick Cheney, no soft-liner, is said to like the Tillerson selection.

This is a possibility that should be entertained as the confirmation process moves forward.