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If there is no other probe into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 elections, the confirmation hearings for secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson will be the Senate’s big opportunity to weigh in.

Such an investigation is likely to happen regardless of Tillerson, since Republican congressional leaders have bucked President-elect Trump and requested one. Either way, the Exxon Mobil CEO’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely dominate the hearings.

By nominating Tillerson, Trump has made good on a campaign promise to put successful businessmen to work on behalf of the United States in negotiating roles. A quick look at Trump’s emerging Cabinet suggests he believes businessmen and generals, rounded out by conservative politicians, can get things done.

The Tillerson choice is nevertheless a risky move because it will keep the spotlight shining on Trump and Russia. If the leaks informing the Washington Post’s report claiming the CIA believes Russia wanted to Trump to win the presidential election were designed to convince him to pick someone more hawkish on Moscow, like Mitt Romney or John Bolton, they failed.



Tillerson has business ties to Russia that senators in both parties are sure to explore and has criticized economic sanctions against Moscow as ineffective. The biggest talking point against Tillerson, especially among Republican skeptics, is that he received Russia’s Order of Friendship from Putin at the conclusion of an energy deal.

“If you received an award from the Kremlin, Order of Friendship, then we’re gonna have some talkin,'” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted Sunday that friendship with Putin wasn’t an “attribute” he was looking for in a potential secretary of state.

Not to be outdone, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was perhaps the bluntest of all of all. “I have some concerns about what kind of business we do with a butcher, a murderer and a thug, which is exactly what Vladimir Putin is,” he told NPR.

None of the trio of hawkish GOP senators has officially opposed Tillerson yet. But they could sink his nomination if Democrats unite against another wealthy businessman joining Trump’s Cabinet. Graham never endorsed Trump, McCain rescinded his endorsement and Rubio was a reluctant Trump supporter after losing to him in the Republican primaries.

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Team Trump has emphasized that Tillerson has had to stand up to Putin in negotiations too. “Rex Tillerson is someone who’s stood up and told Vladimir Putin ‘no,'” transition spokesman Jason Miller said. “He’s also someone who’s stood up and said, ‘We’ll find a way to work together on things.”

Aside from the hacking allegations, there is an emerging rift on the right over Russia. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., would have triggered similar concerns from McCain, Rubio and Graham. Many conservatives view Putin and Russia through a Cold War framework: Putin has a KGB background, he is guilty of human rights abuses at home and is becoming increasingly aggressive abroad.

Communism may be gone, but these Republicans argue Putin’s form of nationalism is dangerous too and he appeals to people in Russia who are nostalgic for the old Soviet Union.

A small but growing group of conservatives views Russia more through the prism of a “clash of civilizations” with elements of the Islamic world. To them, Putin is a defender of Christendom and Western tradition where it is under siege and a civilizational ally against radical Islam.

The latter perspective may not be Trump’s, but many of its adherents have been supporters of the president-elect. Trump has said he would like to pursue better relations with Russia and that he views Moscow’s intervention in Syria, which his Democratic opponent had pledged to stop, as beneficial to America’s war on terrorism.

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Trump’s supporters and inner circle also include those who would like to make nationalism and populism a more important part of American conservatism, sometimes aligning with right-wing parties in Europe.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are closer to the McCain-Graham view of Putin — Gates has specifically criticized Trump on Russia — but all support Tillerson’s nomination. So is Bolton, who has nevertheless criticized reporting about Russian hacks and may still be in the running for deputy secretary of state.

All this is unfolding as Russia stands accused of somehow being involved in the hacking of Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s emails, as well as messages belonging to the Democratic National Convention. This has been a matter of speculation for some months before the Post report quoted anonymous sources saying this was the consensus view of the CIA.

Yet little evidence has been publicly provided for these allegations and the intelligence community has been slow to clarify these points. While the rhetoric about Russia “hacking our democracy” has been heating up, it’s also questionable how impactful the WikiLeaks dumps from Democrats’ inboxes really were.

The WikiLeaks-related story that got the biggest reaction concerned messages that suggested the Democratic National Committee had given Clinton preferential treatment over her primary opponent Bernie Sanders. That had been the suspicion of Sanders supporters all along but to see it reinforced on the eve of the Democratic convention cast a pall over the event and cost Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz her job.

Depressed support from Sanders backers could have been a factor in the close election. Clinton did underperform with millennials, many of whom voted for Sanders in the primaries, and third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein received millions of votes.

But Clinton gained a substantial lead after the DNC story broke and the “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump boasting in vulgar terms about his sexual aggressiveness was bigger than anything that came out of Podesta’s emails. Clinton’s once-comfortable national lead began to evaporate as the “Access Hollywood” shock among GOP voters wore off and, more importantly, FBI Director James Comey said he was reopening the investigation into her private email server.

Republicans coming home to Trump after the Comey letter, white working-class anger in key states that voted narrowly and in some cases unexpectedly for the GOP nominee and Clinton’s neglect of those same states in the waning days of the campaign all seem to be much bigger factors in the election outcome than the emails.

Nonetheless, the allegations deepen the shock and anger of Democratic voters at losing an election they were assured they were going to win and losing it through the Electoral College but not the (constitutionally irrelevant yet symbolically important) national popular vote. The growing number of hacks believed to have originated in hostile foreign countries, such the Office of Personnel Management hacks, also constitute a grave national security problem.

President Obama has been criticized for his cybersecurity efforts and one of the biggest issues dogging Clinton during the campaign was her use of an unsecured email server while sending and receiving sensitive information as secretary of state. Now the focus turns to Trump, as the incoming president of the United States.

Trump has pledged to make cybersecurity a major priority. But he has also appeared almost obstinate in his refusal to even consider that Russia might have played a role in the Democratic hacks, at most conceding it is as likely as the hacks being perpetrated by a 400-pound man stuck in bed. He has tweeted that if his supporters made similar accusations, they would be dismissed as conspiracy theories.

All this, combined with the fact that the leaks hurt the Democrats and the allegations they were intended to specifically benefit Trump, creates the impression that the administration isn’t eager to get to the bottom of this. But the Tillerson nomination is one more opportunity to explore what happened, and members of Trump’s own party are certain to seize it.

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