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It’s time to take Trump’s pro-Russian foreign policy seriously (and literally)

Rex Tillerson is the guy you pick if you’re eager for a new alliance.

Putin Getty / Mikhail Svetlov

Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina is one of the GOP’s leading hawks and an on-again off-again Donald Trump critic. He’s also become the first Republican senator to offer a clearly negative take on a major Trump appointee, Exxon CEO and Russian Order of Friendship member Rex Tillerson.

Speaking to Fox News, Graham says “it would be very hard” to vote for Tillerson unless he breaks with Trump, clearly blames Russia for campaign-season hacking, and offers some kind of countermeasures in response.

GOP scrutiny of Trump appointments is welcome, and it’s natural that a siting senator from Trump’s party would want to proceed judiciously with any criticisms.

But as a logical matter, the idea of asking Tillerson to disavow pro-Russian views is ridiculous. If the Senate doesn’t want to see America’s next secretary of state take foreign policy in a new pro-Russian direction, then the solution is to refuse to confirm Tillerson and insist on a more normal choice like Bob Corker, Robert Zoellick, Stephen Hadley, Nicholas Burns, or any of the other dozen or so conventionally qualified Republicans who are available.

Tillerson is not the most flagrantly unqualified choice that Trump considered (that would be Rudy Giuliani), but he’s a pick who only makes sense in the context of a pro-Russian foreign policy. If Trump wants a secretary of state who will endorse such a policy, he has to pick someone from outside the ranks of the American national security establishment. And in that context, Tillerson seems like a reasonable choice. But outside the context of a policy pivot in favor of Moscow, there’s no conceivable reason to pick Tillerson.

Tillerson’s resume is very strange

From Thomas Jefferson to John Kerry, the United States has had 68 secretaries of state, and all of them have had prior experience in the public sector, which is what you would expect from what’s normally seen as the most prestigious Cabinet gig.

In recent times, specifically, secretaries of state have either been veteran national security hands (Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Lawrence Eagleburger), retired senior military officers (Alexander Haig, Colin Powell), or distinguished leaders in the president’s political party (George Shultz, James Baker, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry).

Trump has no shortage of possible candidates who fit into those buckets. Indeed, he has already tapped retired generals and current GOP members of Congress for a range of jobs. Nor has the Trump transition team offered any specific reason to think that what the State Department needs is a CEO with no experience in diplomacy or government work at the top. But while they haven’t stated a clear reason for bypassing all the conventional choices, there is a perfectly good unstated reason: The conventional choices don’t share Donald Trump’s desire to revise American foreign policy in a pro-Russian direction.

Tillerson is the right choice for a rapprochement with Moscow

The idea that the United States should abandon its current opposition to Russian efforts to dominate its neighbors and crush the Syrian opposition happens to be one that none of the conventionally qualified candidates for secretary of state endorses.

The top brass of the American military is broadly committed to America’s existing defense commitments and regards Russia as a primary threat to the US-led world order. The overwhelming sentiment within the Republican Party is that the Obama administration has been too soft on Russia, and that election hacking, if anything, represents comeuppance for his weakness in refusing to take more vigorous measures in Syria or Ukraine.

Congress member Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) memorably dubbed “Putin’s favorite congressman” naturally ended up on Trump’s secretary of state shortlist as a rare exception to the generally anti-Russian consensus in the GOP.

And compared to Rohrabacher, Tillerson really is a good choice. He has less experience in government, but much more practical experience managing a large organization and conducting talks with foreign governments. Tillerson isn’t a longtime Trump crony, but is said to have come to his attention thanks to recommendations from Rice, Hadley, and Robert Gates, three veterans of George W. Bush’s administration who now run a consulting company that works for Exxon. Some mainstream conservatives are trying to convince themselves that these recommendations mean Tillerson shares their broad outlook on foreign policy. The truth, however, is almost certainly the opposite.

If ex-Bushies wanted to recommend a conventional Republican to Trump, they could have picked almost anyone. They landed on Tillerson because they thought that as long as Trump was determined to make a pro-Cabinet choice, they might as well put someone smart and competent on his radar to set against Rohrabacher.

Take Trump’s Moscow-friendly views seriously (and literally)

Trump has been at this long enough that it’s long past time to stop thinking about his frequently expressed pro-Russian views as some kind of thoughtless gaffe. Since exploding onto the political stage with the claim that Mexican immigrants are rapists and murderers, Trump has routinely articulated a desire to rework the American alliance system:

Many of these moves were seen, at the time they happened, as gaffes reflecting Trump’s inexperience or lack of knowledge. And on some level, perhaps they were. But whether Trump set about to conduct a pro-Russian presidential campaign or else just stumbled into it, at this point he’s stuck with it long enough that we should assume Trump knows what he’s doing.

Michael Gerson, a former George W. Bush speechwriter who is one of a legion of conservative intellectuals who are trying to talk themselves into the idea that Trump will be an okay president, praises Tillerson as not a kook or a crank.

And that’s true as far as it goes. But you don’t run a pro-Russian presidential campaign, benefit from the efforts of Russian hackers, and then just reach outside the box of normal candidates to select a secretary of state who has personal relationships with high-ranking Russian officials, financial investments in Russia, and a record of pro-Russian policy views. Trump wants Tillerson to run the State Department because he wants a top diplomat who’ll make an improved relationship with Russia a top priority — achieved largely through unilateral US concessions on sanctions and de facto recognition of a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

This may be a bad idea, but it’s not a crazy or nonsensical one. And it appears to be how Trump intends to put his stamp on American public policy, even while leaving domestic policy overwhelmingly in the hands of orthodox, establishment-minded Republicans. The question for GOP senators is whether they want to stop him.