A Russia-linked oilman for US State Secretary?

4:37 pm on 15 December 2016

Opinion - Barack Obama ordered an investigation into Russia's role in Donald Trump's victory, while Mr Trump nominated a friend of Vladimir Putin for Secretary of State. It has been a crazy week.

Exxon Mobil chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson addresses the World Gas Conference in Paris in June 2015. Tillerson is US President-elect Donald Trump's top pick for secretary of state, US media report.

US president-elect Donald Trump's top pick for Secretary of State is Rex Tillerson, pictured, an oilman with deep ties to Russia. Photo: ERIC PIERMONT / AFP

The federal investigation into Russian interference in the US election has been joined by one from the Senate Intelligence Committee. In that environment, most politicians would play it safe. They would keep their distance from Russia. They would make it clear they were not in anyone's pocket. They would nominate a plainly independent secretary of state, even one antagonistic towards Russia. Not Donald Trump.

With a straight face, the President-elect nominated a friend of Vladimir Putin. Whether it is insolence, indifference, ignorance or bloody-minded chutzpah is anyone's guess. It is only good politics if you enjoy fighting your own party as well as the opposition.

Mr Trump's dalliance with Mitt Romney seems to have been an opportunity to force Mr Romney to eat crow for calling Mr Trump a conman, phony and fraud. General David Petraeus disappeared after failing the television trial, which rehearsed likely senate questions about him leaking classified documents to his mistress. That left ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson - and so another post went to a merchant prince.

Secretary of which state?

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with ExxonMobil President and CEO Rex Tillerson in August 2011. President-elect Donald Trump tapped Mr Tillerson, an oilman with deep ties to Russia, as his secretary of state.

Friends: ExxonMobil boss Rex Tillerson and Russian leader Vladimir Putin Photo: ALEXEY DRUZHININ / RIA NOVOSTI / AFP

The secretary of state is the top ranked unelected cabinet member, and runs American foreign policy. The appointment requires senate approval, which is by no means certain. Mr Tillerson was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship in 2013 and lobbied hard against Russia sanctions after annexing Crimea. The sanctions got in the way of an ExxonMobil/Rosneft deal to develop oil fields in Siberia and the Arctic, worth as much as half a trillion dollars.

As chief executive of ExxonMobil, Mr Tillerson was a corporate king, ruling a company with its own foreign policy and a "GDP" similar to Greece. Oil exploration is expensive and financial rewards are slow, so oil companies like dealing with stable governments (which often means authoritarian ones). This has been at odds with America's recent "spread the democracy" message.

Mr Tillerson has nearly $US200 million in Exxon stock coming to him over the next decade. It is inevitable his actions as secretary of state will directly affect his own net worth (in contravention of federal law). He cannot divest, as he has not been given the stock yet. What is good for the US might be bad for his bank balance.

Entanglement troubles

Turkey is demonstrating another danger with entanglements: they can be used as leverage against you. Newsweek reports that when Mr Trump called Turkey's President, Recep Erdogan, he lobbied on behalf of his Turkish business partners, the Dogan family. The Dogans helped build two Trump Towers in Istanbul, but have since fallen out of political favour there. Mr Erdogan saw a weakness and intensified his pressure on the Dogans. He has linked them to his enemy, the liberal Islamic leader Fethullah Gülen, who Mr Erdogan desperately wants extradited from his US sanctuary.

It's not hard to read Turkey's message to Mr Trump as "give me my enemy or I will strangle your Turkish cash flow". Mr Trump has numerous such entanglements. His cabinet picks have added other conflicts of interest. Every one of them provides a lever whereby foreign powers can influence American policy to their own advantage. If Mr Trump hands over Mr Gülen, others will line up to take advantage.

Burn the messenger

That Russia was helping elect Mr Trump was not a surprise. As former CIA officer Glenn Carle told The Guardian: "There is not just smoke here. There is a blazing 10-alarm fire, the sirens are wailing, the Russians provided the lighter fluid, and Trump is standing half-burnt and holding a match".

Mr Trump's response to the news was to trash his own intelligence community, accusing the CIA of being wrong about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. In fact, they fought hard against the Bush White House's determination to mischaracterise their intelligence, before ultimately losing to politics. This new relationship is likely to be rockier.

The formal intelligence about Russian involvement was available before election day and led to high-level discussion about whether to make the information public. Doing so was reportedly quashed by Republican senate leader Mitch McConnell.

Amazingly, FBI director James Comey was at that meeting. Having listened to the arguments against influencing the election (in a manner favourable to the Democrats), he did exactly that himself just weeks later (in a manner favourable to the Republicans). Research suggests his intervention decided the election for Trump.

It's going to be a bumpy night

The American intelligence community fears reprisals from Mr Trump for raising this issue. They are not alone. Energy Department staff are trepidatious, after Team Trump requests for the names of staff who have worked on climate change talks. They might well be scared. Mr Trump nominated Rick Perry for the energy portfolio, a man who vowed to shut them down. Environmental and science staff are no less concerned. According to the Washington Post scientists are scurrying to copy decades of climate research data in case an antagonistic appointee decides to delete it all.

Briefings on intelligence

While Mr Trump has trashed his own intelligence agencies, the people tasked with electing him president next week are showing more curiosity. A group of 55 (so far) Electoral College electors have requested a classified briefing for the whole college before they elect the president. The letter points out, (as we did last month), that one purpose of the Electoral College is to stop foreign powers from "gaining an improper ascendant in our councils". It is unlikely to happen.

Mr Trump, meanwhile, reliably swimming against the stream, declared he was not planning to have daily security briefings as president. Partly this was a infantile slap-down after the Russia-helped leak. Partly it reminds us that he was looking for a vice-president prepared to run both domestic and foreign policy. It is likely he struggles to focus on complex briefings on Dagestan and Abkhazia and, what's more, he does not care.

So, like a one-man demonstration of the Dunning-Kruger effect, Mr Trump told Fox News, "You know, I'm, like, a smart person, I don't have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years ... If something should change from this point, immediately call me. I'm available on a one-minute's notice."

Do you feel safer yet?

Phil Smith is an award-winning journalist who has reported for RNZ from China, India and Australia. He has spent far too long revelling in the byzantine minutiae of American politics.