Editorial: Trump’s cozy relationship with Russia

Published: 12/19/2016 5:40:33 PM

President-elect Donald Trump last week continued his move toward a cozier relationship with Russia by choosing Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, days after rejecting the CIA’s analysis that Russian agents had meddled in the election to help Trump win.

Trump continues to chart an unorthodox course as he marches toward the presidency in less than five weeks. Also last week, Trump told “Fox News Sunday” that he had no need for daily intelligence briefings, an unprecedented rejection of what has become a tradition for presidents-elect in recent decades.

“I get it when I need it,” Trump said of the top-secret sessions. “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.”

Despite Trump’s dismissal of the CIA’s assessment as “ridiculous,” Republicans and Democrats demanded a bipartisan investigation of its conclusion that operatives with close ties to the Russian government sent thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee to WikiLeaks in the weeks before the Nov. 8 election.

The CIA concluded with “high confidence” that Russia’s intent was to help Trump win. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain said he planned to have Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump critic, lead an investigation of the CIA’s findings. And President Barack Obama also ordered an investigation and asked for its findings before Trump is inaugurated Jan. 20.

Obama suggested strongly at his year-end news conference Friday that Russian President Vladimir Putin knew about the email hackings, and Obama urged Trump to back the bipartisan investigation. Obama also promised retaliation against Russia for the suspected meddling.

McCain also raised questions about Tillerson’s business ties with Putin. Under Tillerson’s leadership, Exxon Mobil has expanded its business dealings in Russia, and Putin awarded Tillerson an Order of Friendship in 2013.

Trump’s courting of Russia began during the campaign when he spoke favorably about Putin, describing him as a stronger leader in Russia than Obama has been in eight years as president.

A year ago, after Putin praised him as a “talented person,” Trump said in a statement: “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond. I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect.”

In moving to thaw relations with the American adversary since the Cold War, Trump overlooks the facts that the U.S. and Russia are on opposite sides in the Syrian civil war, and U.S. sanctions remain in place after Russia annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Unknown is whether Trump has business interests in Russia that could benefit from friendlier relations. Trump has not said, and he has not released tax returns and business records that might reveal any such investments.

However, if Tillerson is confirmed as secretary of state, he could play a role in lifting sanctions that would benefit Exxon Mobil. Those sanctions led Exxon Mobil to stop assisting Rosneft, the Russian state oil company, in offshore drilling.

The two companies signed a $3.2 billion deal in 2011, and before the sanctions were imposed had opened a new oil field in the Kara Sea region of the Arctic Ocean with an estimated 100 million tons of light crude oil. Exxon Mobil retains the right to its partnership in that venture if the sanctions are lifted.

Even if Tillerson retires from Exxon Mobil next year, he would remain loyal to his longtime employer, believes Michael Klare, a Five Colleges professor of Peace and World Security Studies. Tillerson “devoted his entire life to Exxon Mobil. Why should we assume he will suddenly put that aside?” Klare told the Daily Hampshire Gazette last week.

Klare added that Tillerson, because of his business background, could focus on enriching American corporations, making “a mockery of American foreign policy.”

We hope the Senate thoroughly examines Tillerson’s qualifications to serve as the nation’s top diplomat, including the implications of his business ties with Russia.

And Trump should reveal whether he has any financial incentives driving his desire for improved relations between the U.S. and Russia. Further, we think a man with no government experience might learn a thing or two if he sits in those intelligence briefings between now and Jan. 20.

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