Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: Tillerson gone, Russia smiles

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, standing behind the White House seal in the White House briefing room, with the American flag behind her, announced Monday that the United States was standing with its longtime ally, the United Kingdom.

“The use of a highly lethal nerve agent against UK citizens on UK soil is an outrage,” Sanders said. “The attack was reckless, indiscriminate, and irresponsible. We offer the fullest condemnation, and we extend our sympathy to the victims and their families, and our support to the UK government. We stand by our closest ally and the special relationship that we have.”

Yet even under repeated prodding, Sanders did not say and would not say the word “Russia.” We Americans were standing with our ally, but we Americans would not dare say who we were standing against.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, in her statement to Parliament, had earlier been quite explicit in her description of the attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter that had also put 19 British citizens, including a police officer, in the hospital.

“Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at Porton Down, our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so, Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations, and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations, the government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal,” May said.

“Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”

The reluctance of the White House to say the word Russia in connection to the attacks was of course noted in London, Moscow and other world capitals. The one exception, the one person in the Trump administration who did speak out immediately, specifically, was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. 

“There is never a justification for this type of attack — the attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation — and we are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behavior,” Tillerson said. “From Ukraine to Syria — and now the U.K. — Russia continues to be an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens.”

“We agree that those responsible — both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it — must face appropriately serious consequences.” 

This morning, Trump fired Tillerson. (In comments to reporters he also acknowledged, briefly, that the United Kingdom suspected Russia of involvement in the attack but issued no criticism of Russia’s actions.)

Ironically, Tillerson, the former head of Exxon and a man with no diplomatic training, was appointed as secretary of state by Trump in large part because of his close ties and even friendship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. As head of Exxon, Tillerson had worked closely with Putin, who in 2013 had awarded him the Russian Order of Friendship.

But as secretary of state, Tillerson clearly came to recognize Russia’s continued role in attempting to destabilize democracies and American alliances, and had begun to speak out about it. Its role in the attack on Britain, our NATO ally, merely confirmed all that in Tillerson’s mind, and now he’s gone.

It’s also worth noting that Tillerson was only one in a series of such hirings. Paul Manafort, a man who did nothing without being paid and paid well and who had deep financial ties to Russian oligarchs, somehow became Trump’s campaign manager, working for free. Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, who secretly took money from Russia and dined with Putin, became Trump’s national security adviser. Carter Page, long suspected as a Russian spy, somehow won appointment as a foreign policy adviser to Trump.

Fortunately, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have now reassured us that all of it -- Trump’s continued refusal to criticize Putin or Russia in any way, his repeated hiring of Russia-friendly associates, Russia’s  intervention into the 2016 elections, its documented offer to give Donald Trump Jr. “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, the conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia tried to influence the election on Trump’s behalf -- it’s all perfectly innocent, nothing to see or worry about, and Russia in no way wanted to try to get Trump elected.

Because really, what would be their motivation?

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.