In 2013, Rex Tillerson, as CEO of Exxon, received the Order of Friendship from Vladimir Putin, for his work on the Arctic Exploration Pact with Russia’s state owned oil company, Rosneft. When a private citizen receives an honor from a foreign government, it is bad form to turn it down. Unless you’re Bob Dylan. Then it’s just cool an enigmatic to not acknowledge an international award.
Sure, Tillerson could have refused the award on principle. But what principle? Russia honors Americans all the time. On September 16, 2005, Putin himself attended the groundbreaking of the spectacular Teardrop Monument in Bayonne, New Jersey, a gift from Russia to honor those who died on 9/11. Former President Bill Clinton was there for the monument’s dedication, on September 11, 2006.
For acting eminently reasonable under the circumstances, Tillerson has drawn the ire of Marco Rubio, who tweeted, “Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState – MR.”
Two days before Rubio’s tweet, The Washington Post reported—based on “leaks” from the CIA—that evidence exists to connect Russia to the hacking of John Podesta’s emails. Those emails contained embarrassing but true revelations about Hillary Clinton’s campaign that proved damaging in the election. The concern being that, by leaking the truth, Russia stole the election for Donald Trump.
A reality show producer could not have scripted it better. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have expressed opposition to Tillerson’s appointment. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have called for an investigation into the hacking. The Democrats will take any Republican support they can get. The first great battle of Trump’s presidency will be on ground that has proved the death of empires since the time of Napolean: Russia.
In some ways, it is the perfect ground, because it pits the ethereal self-aggrandizing unreality of the Washington Establishment, against the practical “America First” impulses of the Trump revolution.
McCain has gone on TV to declare that “Vladimir Putin is a thug, and a murderer, and a killer….and a KGB agent.” It does not matter that the KGB and the Soviet Union it served have been disbanded for going on 30 years. Nor that the land mass it once controlled has been fractured into several independent nations. Nor that the spin-off nation Putin leads holds democratic elections; not to mention there is nothing approaching the gulags or the secret police of the Soviet era.
No. What matters is that many Republicans still treat Russia like a big bear which stalks and destroys, based on its residual association with the great international struggles of yesteryear.
The Democrats, to their credit, have let go of this Iron Curtain has descended yada yada worldview, because they never really bought it to begin with. They look at Russia and see something that is, to them, equally objectionable.
Before there was Brexit, there was Putin’s Russia, asserting nationality and culture against the pieties of the one-world-order crowd. The Patriarch of the Orthodox Church is asked to approve all legislation in the country. Putin put the girl rock band Pussy Riot in jail for desecrating an altar—a crime that has not been punished since the time of Gregory the Great. President Obama sent gay representatives to the Sochi Olympics on his behalf, in protest.
Washington’s two diametrically opposed views of Russia could only exist in a place driven by the polemics of fundraising tripe. McCain can portray Putin in emails as Stalin; even while the Democrats paint him as Jerry Falwell with an army.
The media is willing to harbor such wild contradictions if doing so has a chance of diminishing Trump, who annoys them—probably because he always shows them up. If the media is so interested in investigating foreign interference in democratic elections, perhaps one of their crack investigative reporters should Google “John McCain Kiev” and write a story about that.
There is no wilder a contradiction, either, than The Washington Post exhibiting sanctimony over a campaign leak that affected presidential politics. Whether or not the Russians hacked anything (and there is still not a shred of evidence that they did), the Podesta emails are exactly the kind of information Woodward and Bernstein got from Deepthroat in that parking garage.
The emails show Clinton and the Democratic Party fixing the primaries against Bernie Sanders. The chairman of the democratic party, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was forced to resign for her role in the dirty tricks. You would think the media would be celebrating the leak for speaking truth to power. Instead, The Washington Post has intervened in this instance firmly on the side of the cover-up.
Trump’s first attempt to manage America under the rule of reason rather than the drivel of Washington insiders could scuttle on the secretary of state nominee. Of Russia, Trump has said only that it is a natural ally in our war on terror, and that is undoubtedly true. He would favor any engagement that is in America’s self-interest.
The smart money says that Trump wins this one, as he usually does, by showing his critics to be disconnected from the concerns of real people. The Washington Establishment doesn’t know how ridiculous it sounds to people outside of the coastal echo chamber, to suggest that Russia fixed the election.
Especially since they only came up with this recently, after spending four weeks insulting the 62 million who voted for Trump by saying they were responding to dog whistles. They may even think they have a more effective dog whistle that whispers “Russia,” which for 75 years has caused the hoi poloi to do whatever they want. But the people in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Michigan—throw in Wisconsin—have had enough.
There is a brimming confidence in America based on the idea that if Trump frees up American energy production and manufacturing, something will happen that has not in a while: Prosperity. Economic indicators say that confidence is real.
Republicans and Democrats in Washington should understand, for pure political reasons at least, that this is no time to rain on the parade. That’s not going to stop them, though.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.
Thomas J. Farnan is an attorney from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.