If Graham feels this way then presumably McCain feels this way too, which means Tillerson would start the confirmation process with just 50 votes — the bare minimum he’d need for confirmation, assuming he even makes it through committee. Although that assumes, of course, that he opposes new sanctions. Does he?
Probably, yeah. Tillerson opposed sanctions against Russia in 2014, which was understandable from the standpoint of self-interest. Those sanctions cost Exxon big business with Putin. Tillerson didn’t couch the company’s opposition at the time in terms of pure bottom-line finances, though:
At his company’s 2014 annual meeting, Tillerson stated flatly: “We do not support sanctions, generally, because we don’t find them to be effective unless they are very well implemented comprehensibly and that’s a very hard thing to do.”
Not only did Tillerson frown on sanctions two years ago, he attended the World Petroleum Conference in Moscow that year even though the U.S. government urged American business leaders not to attend, to help send a message of disapproval to Putin about his behavior in Ukraine and elsewhere. Tillerson ended up onstage next to top Putin crony Igor Sechin, head of the Russian oil company Rosneft, with which Exxon does business. Sechin had been personally sanctioned by the U.S. government at the time, and yet there Tillerson was. What happens now that his friend Rex is head of the State Department?
Tillerson closest business associate in Russia, Igor Sechin, is on sanctions list. Can he separate personal from national interests?
— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) December 13, 2016
If Tillerson frowns on sanctions as ineffective unless they’re comprehensive, adding some new ones to retaliate against Russia for its hacking escapades would advance the goal of comprehensiveness. (U.S. sanctions on Russia are pretty comprehensive already, in fact.) That’s what Graham wants to do. Is Tillerson prepared to oblige? The U.S. has some leverage right now in trying to starve Russia and its leaders of business abroad: The country is depleting its cash reserves to cope with the economic downturn there, a crisis abetted by new U.S. energy production driving down the price of oil. Sometime next year they may be forced to start raiding state pension funds to keep paying their bills. Putin may have no choice soon but to start playing nicer abroad in order to get some relief from the west. It would be … strange under those circumstances to suddenly throw him a lifeline by lifting sanctions as a goodwill gesture, before he’s at least committed to concessions in Ukraine and Syria, among other places. But that’s the track we seem to be headed on.
Graham’s really just trying to force a concession of his own here, that the incoming Secretary of State will recommend playing hardball with Moscow as punishment for the campaign-related hacking and leaks. (“Of course the Kremlin likes the fact of such an atmosphere of chaos,” a former Putin advisor told WaPo. “Because we are traders of chaos. We sell it, and the more chaos there is in the world, the better it is for the Kremlin.”) Question, though: What’s stopping Tillerson from telling Graham what he needs to hear to get confirmed and Trump then “overruling” Tillerson by deciding on his own to lift sanctions on Russia, which he can do with a pen stroke? That’ll ignite open war between the White House and Russia hawks, both in Congress and among rank-and-file Republicans, and it’ll give liberals conniptions to see Trump “rewarding” Putin for hacking the DNC and John Podesta, but it’d be a reasonable gamble for Trump to conclude that his base will back him up and the rest of the country won’t care much after a few weeks.
Russia, at least, seems to think Tillerson is a likely “no” on sanctions given how excited the Putinites there are about his nomination, with one commentator calling it “a sort of Christmas gift from the American people to the Russian people.” The suspense now is seeing how many other Republicans sign on to Graham’s litmus test about Tillerson having to support new sanctions or at least some kind of reprisal against Russia for the hacking operations. If Rubio does, that’s three “no” votes, enough to sink Tillerson — unless Democrats come to the rescue. Exit quotation from Joe Manchin, who hails from one of the reddest states in the union and is up for reelection in 2018: “As West Virginia’s former governor, I was able to select members of my Cabinet and key advisors and I have always believed that a president should be able to do the same.”