A EurasiaNet Partner Post from: Russia Matters

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has picked his Cabinet members and advisors. Here is a snapshot of their positions on and ties with Russia. This is a work in progress that will evolve throughout the month of January. For our first post, we have focused on those Cabinet picks who have had direct dealings with Russia or a fair bit to say about the country.

Donald Trump Vladmir Putin Russia
By DonkeyHotey (Vladimir Putin carrying his buddy Donald Trump) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Team Trump On Russia


Mike Pence

Previous role/background: Socially conservative governor of Indiana.

Public position on Russia: More hawk than dove during campaign; since election, less clear.

Russia connections/comments: During the presidential campaign Pence expressed a markedly less positive view of Russia and its leadership than his running mate, Donald Trump. In October 2016 he said “there’s no question that the evidence continues to point in … [the] direction” of Russia as a key force behind the email hacks aimed at Pence and Trump’s Democratic rivals. Pence also took a hardline stance on countering Russia’s actions in Syria during the campaign, saying the U.S. should use military force there if Russia kept up airstrikes in support of President Bashar al-Assad. At the time, Pence called Vladimir Putin a “small and bullying leader”—in contrast to Trump’s many kind words about the Russian president—and said “the provocations by Russia need to be met by American strength.” These statements fit Pence’s image as a far more traditional Republican than Trump, which was a strategic asset during the presidential race. Since Trump’s election victory, however, the new vice president’s rhetoric has been more supportive of his boss’s positions. In January Pence defended Trump’s skepticism about Russia’s hand in the hacking as “very sincere,” “healthy” and justified “given some of the intelligence failures of recent years.” He has also hewed closely to Trump’s position after a recent briefing by intelligence officials on Russia’s alleged actions, saying that the new U.S. administration will take “aggressive action … to combat cyber attacks” early on, but he did not explicitly identify Russia as the target of such action.


Rex Tillerson

Position: Secretary of State

Key dates: First round of confirmation hearings scheduled for Jan. 11-12 in Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Previous role/background: Stepped down from position as ExxonMobil’s CEO at end of December 2016, after 41 years with the company, with an estimated net worth of $385 million.

Public position on Russia: Critic turned champion, reportedly.

Russia connections/comments: Tillerson has nearly 20 years’ experience working on energy projects in Russia. In 1998 he became responsible for Exxon’s holdings there as vice president of Exxon Ventures (CIS) Inc. and a top official of Exxon Neftegas Limited, a subsidiary registered in the Bahamas. According to recent reporting by the New York Times, Tillerson’s public attitude toward Russia changed dramatically between about 2008 and 2011, shifting from skepticism and criticism to praise and bonhomie, including what he himself has publicly described as “a very close relationship” with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The newspaper attributed the change to his realization “that the key to success in Russia, a country deeply important to Exxon’s future, lay in establishing personal relationships with Mr. Putin and his friend and confidant, Igor Sechin, the powerful head of Rosneft,” Russia’s state-controlled oil giant. In 2011, under Tillerson’s leadership, ExxonMobil clinched a multi-billion-dollar “strategic cooperation agreement” with Rosneft, including plans to explore for oil in the Arctic. In 2013 Putin awarded Tillerson Russia’s Order of Friendship, the highest state honor possible for a foreigner, for what the Kremlin called his “big contribution to developing cooperation in the energy sector.” The following year the deal was effectively mothballed because of U.S. sanctions imposed on Moscow for its actions in Ukraine. Speaking at ExxonMobil’s 2014 shareholder meeting, Tillerson questioned the effectiveness of sanctions in general and warned that they can cause “very broad collateral damage.” In June 2016 he showed up at Putin’s so-called Russian Davos economic forum despite the U.S. State Department’s explicit recommendation that Americans not attend. Trump’s pick of Tillerson won praise from at least three pro-Kremlin Russian officials, with one of them calling him “some kind of Christmas gift from the American people to the Russian people.” Tillerson’s relationship with Russia and Putin personally is likely to be a matter of close scrutiny during his confirmation hearings. In meetings with senators ahead of the hearings he reportedly tried to “to project a clear-eyed and tough message about how he views Vladimir Putin’s Russia, without committing to any specific policies the Trump administration might pursue.”

James “Mad Dog” Mattis

Position: Defense Secretary

Key dates: Initial round of confirmation hearings is scheduled for Jan. 12, but full confirmation will require a special waiver as Mattis has been out of uniform for less than the required 10 years.

Previous role/background: Retired military general who retired in 2013 after more than 40 years in the Marine Corps.

Russia connections/comments: Mattis has expressed a deep wariness about Russian intentions, saying in 2015 that President Vladimir Putin wants “to break NATO apart” and calling Russia possibly the “most dangerous” near-term threat faced by the U.S. During the same speech Mattis said “Putin goes to bed at night knowing he can break all the rules and the West will try to follow all the rules,” which “is a very dangerous dichotomy in the way the world is being run.” During a Senate hearing in January 2015 he expressed support for U.S. aid to Ukraine in fighting against Russia-backed insurgents, stating that as long as Russia is willing to continue the war the United States needs to ask whether “we are willing to support the Ukrainian people who want to defend themselves. And on that one, I’m pretty one-way about it. Of course, we support them.” At the same hearing he suggested that although sending weapons to Ukraine could increase levels of violence there, it may also turn the country into “a fulcrum on which his [Putin’s] foreign policy is now hammered back in line with the international order of respect for state boundaries and that sort of thing as he starts having a higher physical cost, more troops coming home dead from this sort of thing.” Mattis did also acknowledge, however, that Russians “can take a lot more stoic view” on various hardships. In a speech last April, Mattis warned about an Iranian- or Russian-controlled Middle East, saying that “vacuums left” there tend to be filled by “terrorists, or by Iran, or by their surrogates, or Russia.”

Jeff Sessions

Position: Attorney General

Key dates: First round of confirmation hearings to be held Jan. 10-11 in Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Sessions is a senior member.

Previous role/background: Republican Senator from Alabama whose 1986 nomination for a federal judgeship fell through after allegations of racism.

Public position on Russia: Hawkish until as recently as 2015; more conciliatory after becoming an advisor to candidate Trump in March 2016.

Russia connections/comments: Sessions has long talked tough about the threat Russia poses to the U.S. and its

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