Republicans torn over pick for secretary of state

New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans face a vexing dilemma with the impending presidency of Donald Trump: Will they maintain the tough line on Russia that has been central to their foreign policy for decades or cede that ground to Democrats?

FILE -- Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 1, 2016. Corker, the chairman of the foreign relations committee, has been critical of Russia but has praised Donald Trump's  selection of Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon Mobil and a longtime friend of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, to be secretary of state. (Al Drago/The New York Times)

For decades during the Cold War, Republicans tried to claim the hawkish mantle when it came to confronting the Soviet Union. Vice President Richard M. Nixon famously squared off against Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1959, and years later President Ronald Reagan cast the Soviets as an “evil empire.”

Reagan made that assertiveness central to his foreign policy, and he is credited by many with hastening the downfall of the Soviet Union, the most persistent and formidable adversary of the United States of the last 60 years. And Reagan disciples today in the Republican Party, including Vice President-elect Mike Pence, are many.

Reagan helped to frame the template for a U.S. foreign policy that promulgated democracy around the world and curbed what has often been called Russian adventurism.

Tillerson: Now Republicans will have to reconcile that party catechism with their vote on Trump’s selection as secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, who is the chief executive of Exxon Mobil and a longtime friend of President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

Tillerson, who has described his relationship with Putin as close, was once presented with the Russian Order of Friendship, one of the highest honors a foreigner can receive. Trump’s selection of him drew strong condemnation from Democrats and a cool reception from a handful of Republicans such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a longtime leader against Russian aggression.

“Russia is going to be the central litmus test for United States policy,” said Heather A. Conley, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Our allies and our adversaries are watching this very closely, and obviously the names of the Cabinet positions are being scrutinized that much more closely.”

Senate Republicans — including Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee — who have long been critical of Putin and of President Barack Obama’s attempt to “reset” relations with Moscow, have praised Tillerson.

“Mr. Tillerson is a very impressive individual and has an extraordinary working knowledge of the world,” Corker said. That view was echoed by Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader.

Dynamic: The laudatory response from many Republicans over a choice that a year ago, on paper at least, might have appalled them demonstrates a strong desire to begin a new administration aligned with Trump.

It is the same dynamic that has prevented a larger outcry from congressional Republicans over revelations that Russia interfered with the presidential election. They fear they could appear aligned with Democrats in raising questions about the election’s legitimacy. While congressional leaders called for investigations into possible tampering, they stopped short of ordering expansive efforts such as a select committee.

At the same time, a majority of Republicans are overjoyed with Trump’s other Cabinet picks — staunch conservatives in the world of education, health care and law enforcement — and are likely to accede to the president-elect’s choice for the nation’s chief diplomat.

The other selections are “draft picks for conservatives who have been looking to reform those departments for years,” said Kevin Madden, a former adviser to Mitt Romney, who was passed over for secretary of state. “Those Cabinet picks have certainly helped build up some of that political capital.”

Contrast: Still, the contrast from recent years is striking.

In 2012, when Romney was running for president, he called Russia the “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” a position echoing decades of Republican thinking. He was derided by Obama, his opponent.

Corker and others have joined the most robust voices on Capitol Hill in calling for sanctions on Russia, a position that would seem to put them at odds with Trump and Tillerson. He and 20 Senate Republicans tried in 2014 to push through severe new sanction triggers against the nation and praised Obama when he imposed them on Russia for destabilizing Ukraine.

Both of the last two major defense bills authorized funding for security assistance to Ukraine, including lethal assistance the Obama administration has refused to provide.

This year’s bill authorizes $3.4 billion for the European Deterrence Initiative, a fourfold increase from last year, focused on increasing the size, capability and readiness of U.S. forces in Europe against growing threats to their security and territorial integrity.

Those bills, while championed by McCain, are in keeping with a long history of bipartisan agreements over checking Russia, such as the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, a trade measure that required emigration criteria to get certain trade benefits.

In 2012, led by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., Congress overwhelmingly passed more sanctions tied to Russian human rights abuses. Last week, Congress passed the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act as part of the broad defense bill, continuing a long-standing bipartisan focus on human rights and anti-corruption efforts.

“I have found Congress on both sides of the aisle to be entirely robust on the issue of Russia,” said William Browder, chief executive of Hermitage Capital, noting that the Senate passed the 2012 measure 92-4.

“Since then the situation has gotten only worse between Ukraine, the Crimean War, crimes in Syria, cheating in sports, hacking in American elections and so on,” Browder continued. “It is hard for me to imagine that Congress would suddenly change their mind about Russia just because Donald Trump has a different view.”

Exceptions: There have been notable exceptions to the Republicans praising Tillerson. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said this week: “I have serious concerns about his nomination. The next secretary of state must be someone who views the world with moral clarity.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who often aligns with McCain, said in a statement that he expected “the U.S.-Russian relationship to be front and center in his confirmation process.” Two other Republicans, Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, reacted to the news as if they had been presented with their sixth choice on a lunch menu of 10 items.

“Sen. Sasse has been outspoken against Russia’s recent aggressions,” said his spokesman, James Wegmann. “He also looks forward to diving into every nominee’s record.”

The burden will fall to Tillerson, and perhaps Trump, to persuade Rubio and enough other Republicans that he shares their views on Russia, his friendship with Putin notwithstanding.

The process, Conley said, may well provide clues to allies and adversaries about where the United States is headed under Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress in what has been a fraught relationship with Russia.

“The question is: Is the United States willing to accommodate the Russian annexation of territory, the invasion of its neighbors and its indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Syria, or are we willing to defend principles and rules that go back to the end of the Second World War?” Conley said. “If the U.S. walks away from these principles, other countries such as Russia will step into the breach and trample on the very rules that keep Americans safe.”