The Trump administration continues to struggle from its inability to free itself of the “dark cloud” of the Russia investigation. Since last May, Robert Mueller, veiled in secrecy, has been scrutinising the links between the President’s team and Russia. As of yet, there has been no indication that Trump’s State Department is part of the investigation. This might be about to change.
Jane Mayer from the New Yorker broke the story last week that Russia blocked the President from naming Mitt Romney as Secretary of State. This news came from an unreleased memo by the former British spy Christopher Steele, the same source for the influential memo published by Buzzfeed in January 2017. These allegations, if true, could represent a turning point in the Russian investigation, particularly since Donald trump ultimately chose a much more Russian-friendly appointee for Secretary of State.
Rex Tillerson, a former executive for the oil giant Exxon Mobil, now heads the diplomatic juggernaut of American soft power that is the State Department. Under his control, the Department has seen its staff gutted, both by departmental reshuffling and by the flurries of senior personnel resignations. In spite of the deep cuts planned by Tillerson for his department, Congress decided to provide him with $80 million to fight Russian election interference and propaganda – Tillerson’s State Department has not spent any of it. In fact, the Department’s specialised sanctions unit, the Coordinator for Sanctions Policy Office, was dissolved during a redesign. This semblance of inaction has enraged many Democrats and Republicans who have been pushing for a tougher stance on Russia since the 2016 election.
Tillerson has dismissed criticism of his Russian sanctions policy. When asked why his department had not yet enacted the sanctions already voted through Congress he inaccurately affirmed “We have and we are”. The administration argues that the threat of sanctions had achieved the intended outcome of the legislation and that additional Congressional sanctions were not needed.
It seems unlikely that Rex Tillerson became the head-diplomat of the American government as the result of a quid-pro-quo with a hostile foreign power. However, the news that Russia reportedly blocked the appointment of Mitt Romney should bring additional scrutiny to the State Department, particularly since the man that took his place is decorated with the Russian Order of Friendship.
Article by Fergus Wilson