In New York on Wednesday, President-elect Donald Trump dismissed as “crap” the intelligence reports suggesting Russia has compromising information on him.
Trump knows this because, as he tweeted, Russia called it “A COMPLETE AND TOTAL FABRICATION.” And if Vladimir Putin’s government says something, it must be true.
But whether or not Russia has such blackmail potential may be beside the point. Trump and his incoming administration are already doing exactly what Putin wants.
As Trump was giving his first post-election news conference in Trump Tower, his nominee to be secretary of state was testifying in Washington - and Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil chief, showed why he earned Putin’s Order of Friendship award.
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It was early in the nine-hour hearing when Tillerson said he might recommend revoking President Obama’s actions punishing Russia for its cyberattack during the American election, which Tillerson acknowledged was probably approved by Putin.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) followed that with a blunt question: “Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?”
“I would not use that term,” the Russian Order of Friendship laureate replied.
Rubio offered to “help” Tillerson reach that conclusion, describing his targeting of schools and markets in Syria that have killed thousands of civilians, and his earlier attacks on Chechnya, where he killed 300,000 civilians using cluster munitions and bombs that kill by asphyxiation. “You are still not prepared to say that Vladimir Putin and his military … have conducted war crimes?”
“I would want to have much more information before reaching a conclusion,” the nominee replied.
Rubio went on to ask about the broadly held view that Putin has approved the killing of “countless” opponents, dissidents and journalists.
“I do not have sufficient information to make that claim,” Tillerson replied.
“Do you think that was coincidental?” Rubio pressed.
Tillerson said “these things happen” to “people who speak up for freedom,” but he would need to know more.
Rubio was angry. “None of this is classified, Mr. Tillerson,” he said. “These people are dead.”
It was a big moment for the man Trump called Lil' Marco. But it’s ominous that there aren’t more like him and John McCain speaking up now.
Putin has managed to achieve in a few months of cyberwarfare what his Soviet predecessors failed to do in 45 years of the Cold War: creating a pliable American government, willing to overlook human rights abuses in the interest of commerce.
Trump on Wednesday tweeted that the leaked intelligence report was “one last shot at me” and asked: “Are we living in Nazi Germany?” But his liaison with Russia feels more Eastern Bloc than Third Reich. Trump has a slate of pro-Russia advisers talking about a more conciliatory approach to Putin, and their statements have echoed Kremlin statements. Trump acknowledged that “I think it was Russia” that did the election hacking, but rather than regard it as an act of war, he praised the outcome: “It shouldn’t be done,” he said, but “look at what was learned from that hacking.”
Tillerson offered a few welcome departures from his would-be boss’s positions: He embraced the Magnitsky law punishing human rights abuses and said Russia’s annexation of Crimea would not be recognized. He was more supportive of NATO than Trump has been.
But Tillerson didn’t mention the election hacking in his opening statement, and, in response to Rubio, he said he would “have concerns” with legislation imposing mandatory sanctions on those who commit cyberattacks on the United States.
Other responses were equally unnerving. Tillerson told Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) that he had not yet discussed Russia with Trump, and he asserted that “to my knowledge, Exxon never directly lobbied against sanctions.” Congressional lobbying records show Exxon lobbied on many Russia sanctions bills.
Asked by Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) about how he would avoid being undermined as chief diplomat by the president’s “quickly drafted, not vetted” tweets on world affairs, Tillerson replied, “I have his cellphone number.”
“We'll hope for the best there - unless you have anything else to add,” Young said. Tillerson didn’t.
The nominee didn’t rule out the creation of a registry of Muslims. He declined to say that China is one of the world’s worst human rights violators. He wouldn’t criticize drug raids in the Philippines that have killed 6,200. And he said he couldn’t make a “true determination” whether Saudi Arabia violates human rights.
It was grim to see an incoming American secretary of state avert his gaze from human rights abuses in Russia and across the globe. Rubio said it “demoralizes” billions of people. “That cannot be who we are in the 21st century,” Rubio told Tillerson.
But apparently it already is.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.