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President-elect Trump’s selection of Exxon Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson as his nominee for secretary of state is proving his most controversial yet.

Some of this may be due to the fact that Democratic efforts to damage Trump are reaching a sort of pre-inauguration crescendo, and to the Left’s reflexive dislike of business people, especially those working for the bogeyman, Big Oil.

But there are other more respectable reasons that questions are being raised. Skeptics want to know whether Tillerson would continue to act in Exxon Mobil’s interests, for example by pressing for an end to economic sanctions against Russia, where the oil giant has major interests. They are, too, raising concerns over Tillerson’s lack of previous diplomatic or other government experience, although he appears to be highly adept at the diplomacy of international business and is affiliated with a serious foreign policy think-tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

These proper questions are ones on which Tillerson, a thoughtful, intelligent, and evidently capable man, seems likely to be able to provide compelling reassurances to Congress. But there is a much bigger question being raised by key senators about the precise nature of Tillerson’s relations with Russia and, more particularly, with President Vladimir Putin.

That Tillerson has a personal rapport with Putin should not be disqualifying, and might be regarded as a considerable asset. It could help both in dealing with the Russian and in persuading a President Trump to be less apparently accommodating of the tyrant in the Kremlin.

President Obama and his one-time secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, sought a “reset” with Russia. The fact they failed abjectly does not mean it was bad policy; just as Washington once thawed relations with China to counter Soviet aggression, so it might now help to have better relations with Moscow to tackle the dirigiste dictators in Beijing. Having Tillerson at State, getting on with Putin, could be advantageous.

But there are clear questions that need to be answered by a man of whom the Wall Street Journal this month wrote, “Friends and associates said few U.S. citizens are closer to Mr. Putin than Mr. Tillerson.” The precise nature of Tillerson’s ties to Putin matter. They deserve thorough examination during the confirmation process. Senators should not prematurely rule Tillerson out, but they should also be satisfied with what they see and hear before confirming him.

Trump has been consistently sympathetic toward Putin. Even though inconsistency has marked his views on many other issues, the president-elect has been unwavering in his refusal to say anything to which Russia’s leader might object. America does not need a secretary of state who would magnify this peculiar sympathy. Trump’s team seems to understand that Putin is now a liability, and defends him as someone who is not afraid to tell Putin “no.”

It is very much in Tillerson’s favor that his nomination is strongly supported by former Defense Secretary Bob Gates and former Secretaries of State James Baker and Condoleezza Rice. Gates, a loyal servant of America under Presidents Bush and Obama, is no flatterer, having once disparaged Trump as “willfully ignorant” of world affairs. And he is clear-eyed about Putin’s aggressions. But one cannot neglect to mention that Gates and Rice run a consulting firm, of which Tillerson is a client.

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Russia under Putin is a dark and menacing nation run by an amoral oligarchy. Proximity to Putin entails proximity to wars of aggression, likely war crimes (most recently in Syria), imprisonment of critics on trumped-up charges, and assassinations and kidnappings at home and abroad — just as in the old Soviet days.

In his confirmation hearings, Tillerson should be asked for his beliefs about Putin’s annexation of Crimea. As chief executive of Exxon Mobil, he declared neutrality on the matter, saying, “We don’t take sides in any geopolitical events.” That was acceptable then, but now his own view matters. Tillerson should also be pressed for his opinion on whether (and if so, why) Russia has become America’s primary geopolitical foe. There is no clearly right answer to this question, but we need to know what Tillerson thinks.

Putin gave Tillerson an official Russian government award, the Order of Friendship. Previous recipients include artists, architects and world chess champion Anatoly Karpov, but also Andrei Lugovoi, suspected in the poisoning assassination of Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London, and George Blake, the British Soviet spy whose treason may have led to the execution of 40 Western intelligence assets during the Cold War.

Tillerson can emerge from his confirmation hearings with his reputation enhanced and with senators confident in Trump’s choice. But they will not do so unless he is cogent and convincing in dealing with the question of Russia, and in allaying concerns that America’s relations with that rogue state have suddenly taken a sharp and disquieting turn.

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