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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The central question facing Exxon Mobile Corp. chief executive Rex Tillerson if he becomes U.S. secretary of state is whether a life-long oil man with close ties to Russia can pivot from advancing corporate interests to serving the national interest.

Tillerson, 64, got his start as a production engineer at Exxon in 1975 and has worked there ever since, running business units in Yemen, Thailand and Russia before being named chief executive in 2006. He was expected to retire next year.

Critics suggested that if President-elect Donald Trump were to choose Tillerson – as a source familiar with the situation said he was expected to do – it would continue a trend of selecting some aides who may favor a softer line toward Moscow.

Among these is Trump’s pick for national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who raised eyebrows when he sat beside Russian President Vladimir Putin at a Moscow banquet last year and who has argued that the United States and Russia should collaborate to end Syria’s civil war and to defeat Islamic State militants.

Some former officials said it was an open question whether Tillerson could make the transition from running Exxon, a vast company that explores for oil and gas on six continents, to the even greater complexity of being secretary of state.

“Negotiating a real estate deal or an oil contract with Saudi Arabia is not the same thing,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East specialist now at the Wilson Center think-tank in Washington.

“It’s not a complicated summit where you are trying to reconcile historical woundings, religious identities, sectarian tensions.”

“I’m not arguing that he can’t make this conversion. I just don’t think we know.”

‘A STRAIGHT ARROW’?

Many U.S. officials are worried by Russia’s increasingly aggressive behavior. It annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war and is accused of interfering in U.S. domestic politics.

U.S. intelligence analysts have concluded that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton, and not just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system, a senior U.S. official said.

In his role at Exxon Tillerson maintained close ties with Putin and opposed U.S. sanctions against Russia for its incursion into Crimea.

Daniel Yergin, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Prize: the Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power,” said Russia represented a relatively small portion of Exxon’s overall operations and played down its significance.

“It was a business relationship,” Yergin said.

“The whole Russian thing is so much front and center now so it’s inevitable that those questions be asked but, obviously, if you are a major oil company, you want to go to where your resources (are). You have to replace your reserves,” he added.

“If he becomes secretary of state, the interests he will pursue will be U.S. interests. This is an Eagle Scout kind of guy. He was president of the Boy Scouts,” he said. “He is a straight arrow. If that’s his mission, that’s what he’ll do.”

In an interview to be aired on “Fox News Sunday,” Trump praised Tillerson as “much more than a business executive.”

“He’s a world class player,” Trump said. “To me, a great advantage is he knows many of the players, and he knows them well.”

However, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a senior Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that would weigh Tillerson’s nomination, was unsparing in his criticism of the possible appointment.

“Reports that Rex Tillerson could be nominated to be our nation’s top diplomat (are) alarming and absurd,” he said. “With Rex Tillerson as our secretary of state the Trump administration would be guaranteeing Russia has a willing accomplice in the president’s cabinet guiding our nation’s foreign policy.”

CLIMATE CHANGE

Should Tillerson be nominated, climate change could be another controversial issue.

Exxon is under investigation by the New York Attorney General’s Office for allegedly misleading investors, regulators and the public on what it knew about global warming.

However, if chosen, Tillerson would be one of the few people selected for major roles in the Trump administration to believe that human activity causes climate change.

After Trump’s election, Exxon came out in support of the Paris Climate Agreement. It has also advocated for a carbon tax and internally factors in a theoretical price on carbon as it weights manufacturing and exploration costs of projects.

Some environmental groups are alarmed at the prospect of Exxon’s CEO as the country’s top diplomat.

“Donald Trump appears intent to undo a century of environmental and social progress and return America to the age of robber barons and corporate trusts,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law.

“Who better to turn to than Exxon, the granddaddy of them all?”

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, John Walcott; and Dmitry Zhdannikov; Editing by Robert Birsel)

IMAGE: ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the 26th World Gas Conference in Paris, France, June 2, 2015. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.