Before departing for a closely-watched trip to Russia this week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on the Kremlin to “confront” its meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. In a segment on ABC’s “This Week,” Tillerson warned Russia that its continued meddling here and elsewhere “undermines any hope of [Russia] improving relations” with the United States and European democracies.
But while this sentiment is welcome, this should be seen as a startling admission from Tillerson. Here’s why: If this is what Tillerson thinks, then it raises the question: Does President Trump share this view, or is Tillerson in conflict with the president, who once called on Russians to hack his rival Hillary Clinton’s email?
If Tillerson in fact represents the administration’s view, then we need to hear this from the president himself. And that should come not only in a validation of Tillerson’s call to the Russians, but in, at long last, vital transparency about his campaign’s role with Russian efforts, perhaps in the form of a statement of support for a full, independent probe of this whole affair.
Indeed, right now, getting to the bottom of the Trump campaign’s possible campaign collusion with Russia is more urgent than ever — because tensions between the United States and Russia are rising.
Monday, the Kremlin said that Russian President Vladimir Putin wouldn’t meet with Tillerson this week in Moscow. It’s not clear whether that was triggered by the U.S. air strike in Syria last week or another reason. But, given that relations are deteriorating, it is even more incumbent on the administration to stop trying to obfuscate and sow confusion about continuing revelations concerning Russian meddling in our election and potential collaboration with Trump’s campaign towards that end.
Just three weeks ago, the public learned, via FBI Director James B. Comey’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, that the agency was conducting a counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference in our election and into whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with that Russian effort. Since then, the chair of that committee, Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), has been forced to step aside from the investigation after it became clear that he was working with the White House to undermine his own committee’s oversight role.
The public also discovered, through the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has undertaken its oversight responsibilities with the requisite seriousness (unlike its counterpart in the House), that Russia targeted not only Democrats but also Trump’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. We also learned that Trump himself may have inadvertently aided Russian efforts to confuse the American public via “active measures,” or disinformation, when he repeated or retweeted false stories first disseminated by Russian propaganda.
Since these two blockbuster revelations — one exposing the role of White House officials in aiding Nunes’s torpedoing of his own investigation and the other revealing how the Russian meddling worked and how Trump himself got swept up in it — first came to light, the public’s attention has been diverted to the ongoing White House power struggles and to Trump’s decision to strike the Syrian air base.
But now Tillerson, of all people, has swung the focus back. His demand that Russia “confront” its election interference is rather mystifying. It looks, on the surface, to be an abrupt shift for the former Exxon Mobil chief executive. Tillerson has his own longstanding ties with Russia and has a history of praising Putin. But as secretary of state, Tillerson has begun to take a hard-line against Russia’s role in Syria — and now, its interference in elections in the United States and Europe.
On the one hand one might say, “good for Tillerson” for mounting an effort — no matter how toothless — to hold Russia to account for its election meddling. On the other hand, though, since associates of Tillerson’s boss are being investigated at home for possible collusion with the Russians, it seems odd that he would even remark on it at all. Indeed, Tillerson’s remarks function as an inadvertent reminder of what we don’t know about team Trump’s role in that meddling — and that team Trump appears keen on keeping it that way. Trump has resisted calls for an independent probe, a view shared by Republicans who continue to have his back.
Perhaps Tillerson thought he was doing Trump a favor by suddenly “getting tough” on Russian meddling, as if this will distance the administration from its own possible role in that story. But Tillerson’s tough talk does not end the need for a full accounting of the Trump campaign’s role. In fact, the unexpected nature of Tillerson’s statement makes it even more pressing that Trump clarify the administration’s stance, on how serious it thinks Russia’s meddling really was, and what should be done to get the full truth about it.