The Washington Post published an alluring story of how President-elect Donald Trump arrived at Rex Tillerson for the coveted secretary of state post. In it, we read how Trump didn’t outright reject Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Sen. Bob Corker or Gen. David Petraeus; but he had serious misgivings about all of them.
Then, seemingly out of the ether, the name Rex Tillerson appeared. Trump had never considered Tillerson, or met with him (I don’t know if the two had ever encountered each other casually, but certainly not in the political realm). Before we knew it, Tillerson emerged the frontrunner, then the winner of the position.
Trump was portrayed as deliberative, resistant to being pushed, and at the end, decisive. Good for him, and good for the Washington Post, who finally spilled some ink on the positive side of the Trump ledger.
But Trump is also shown to be malleable, because between the lines of the story we can see how Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates did a masterful job planting Tillerson’s name, then selling Trump on the idea. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “lobbying,” although Rice and Gates are part of the consulting firm RiceHadleyGates, and ExxonMobil is a client.
This is not a case of “pay to play” in the sense that Tillerson decided that being the CEO of the second-, third-, or sixth-largest (depending on how you count your apples) public corporation in the world by market capitalization, was not fun enough, and after four decades decided to opt for a cushy government job. It’s not that way at all.
It’s more that Rice and Gates had found a diamond on the green–a green on which Trump had not played. Quite literally, Rice had met Tillerson by dint of their mutual membership at the mega-exclusive Augusta National Golf Club, where they hit the links together. Gates separately knew Tillerson from their mutual work with the Boy Scouts of America.
Both Gates and Rice started a whispering campaign, in the right ears, pushing Tillerson’s name. They worked together, planned their approach, and proved that Trump can be malleable, when it’s finessed just right.
First, Rice went to Vice President-elect Mike Pence to pitch Tillerson. Then Gates went to Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, who set up a meeting between Gates and Trump. Flynn must have known how frustrated Trump was with the choices before him.
“I recommend Rex,” Gates told Trump, referring to Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil. Gates said in an interview that he had not gone to the meeting intending to recommend Tillerson, and he did not recommend anyone else. Separately, on the previous day, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice had proposed Tillerson to Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Rice and Gates, who run a consulting firm that counts ExxonMobil as a client, had jointly concluded that Tillerson might give Trump a fresh alternative.
Trump “seemed intrigued,” Gates said. “It was not something he had considered.”
Nobody in politics would consider Robert Gates or Condoleezza Rice to be anti-establishment. But they moved Trump, and moved him quickly, to the choice they both preferred–a man with zero government on his resume, a company man with very close ties to Russia.
Neither Rice nor Gates are stooges for Russia, or Putin. If you want to read the seminal piece on how to beat Putin in Syria, read this piece the pair wrote in the Post in October 2015.
We should not forget that Moscow’s definition of success is not the same as ours. The Russians have shown a willingness to accept and even encourage the creation of so-called failed states and frozen conflicts from Georgia to Moldova to Ukraine. Why should Syria be any different? If Moscow’s “people” can govern only a part of the state but make it impossible for anyone else to govern the rest of it — so be it.
They both see Putin as he is, not some inscrutable enemy or demonic foe, but a smart, unsentimental, power-politics opportunist. And they both saw Tillerson as a kindred spirit, who was willing to walk with Putin when it suited both Russia’s and ExxonMobil’s interests, and walk away when things got too hot.
Without Rice and Gates, Trump would likely never have found Tillerson. It’s just this kind of “lobbying” that Trump desperately needs to get himself outside the partisan bubble so many presidents exist inside. Trump is a salesman; a bullsh**ter to be sure. But it takes one to know one, and to know when an honest salesman is pitching an honest product.
The tale of Tillerson is an example of two honest salespeople pitching what they believe is an honest product. Tillerson is terrible optics for the Trump administration. He may not even survive confirmation (although my bet is he does). But the best lesson through this story is that Trump can be malleable. (Trump himself admitted that he’s sought President Obama’s opinion and advice on appointments.)
When he’s at an impasse, or wavering between conflicting opinions among his closest advisers, it appears the new president will be open to listen and be swayed by even to the most surprising, or establishment, voices.