Robb: McCain shouldn't torpedo Tillerson

Robert Robb,
Robert Robb

Arizona Sen. John McCain can probably derail the appointment of Exxon boss Rex Tillerson as secretary of state if he chooses.

As the leader of the hawk wing of the party, McCain’s opposition would likely attract at least a few other Republicans to his side. And it is doubtful that Democrats would provide the votes to spare Donald Trump an embarrassing defeat, particularly to rescue an oil chieftain.

If, however, McCain did so because of disagreement with Trump’s and Tillerson’s Russian policy, that would be an abuse of the advice and consent function.

McCain sees Russian leader Vladimir Putin as an authoritarian to his core with expansionary ambitions to restore, in all but name, the former Soviet Union. He also sees Putin as committed to undermining U.S. interests whenever and wherever he can.

Trump, on the other hand, believes that a transactional relationship with Putin can be achieved, based upon mutual national interests where they exist. Although Trump has not explicitly said it, he also seems to be understanding of Russia’s desire for a sphere of influence around its borders.

Who is right isn’t crystal clear.

Michael Mandelbaum, in his book Mission Failure, makes a convincing case that the prospect of Russia becoming a democratic capitalist country was extinguished by the expansion of NATO after the fall of the Soviet Union.

NATO is a military alliance. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, what was its purpose other than to intimidate and constrain Russia? Its expansion was a declaration to Russia that it would not be accepted as a part of liberal Western Europe. It would remain the other against which Western Europe was aligned and organized.

On the other hand, the transformation of Russia into a democratic capitalist country is hard to see, even if NATO had not expanded. Boris Yeltsin botched the initial introduction of democratic governance and markets. And Putin does seem authoritarian to his core. We may have ended up in the same place regardless.

In fact, it may be that both McCain and Trump are partially right. Putin may be an authoritarian to the core, with expansionary ambitions and a desire to undermine U.S. interests. And, despite that, there may be the ability to have a transactional relationship with him.

What isn’t in doubt is that Trump was elected president and McCain was not.

That doesn’t mean that McCain has to defer to Trump about Russian policy. The Constitution gives Congress, and particularly the Senate, some concurrent authority regarding foreign policy.

However, the Constitution also clearly gives the president the lead role in relations with other countries. And a president should have the ability to put in place the team that he thinks will best advance his policies.

If Trump believes that Tillerson as secretary of state does that, McCain would be wrong to sabotage the nomination because he disagrees with the policy.

In discussing the advice and consent function in Federalist No. 76, Alexander Hamilton doesn’t mention checking the executive on policy as a reason for it. Instead, it was to protect against cronyism, corruption and manifestly unfit officers. Tillerson meets none of those descriptions.

As a senator, there are a lot of things McCain can do to fight Trump on Russian policy if he thinks it misdirected. Denying Trump what he regards as his best team shouldn’t be among them.

This deference to the president should only extend to members of his government charged with implementing his policies. It shouldn’t extend to nominees to institutions which are supposed to exercise independent judgment, such as the courts or the Federal Reserve.

Judges and Federal Reserve board members are not appointed to implement the policies of the president. In those cases, senators appropriately bring to bear their own judgments about judicial philosophy and monetary policy.

The secretary of state, however, is the agent of the president. A policy disagreement with the president isn’t a proper reason to reject his choice of an agent.

McCain shouldn’t submarine Tillerson.

Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic.