On Monday, The New Yorker published a profile of Christopher Steele, the former British spy who authored the dossier outlining President Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with the Russian government to sway the 2016 election in his favor, and it contained a major bombshell on Putin’s possible influence on at least one of the president’s cabinet picks.
According to the report, Steele is believed to have spoken with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the lead investigator in the FBI’s Russia probe, about Russia swaying Trump’s decision to pass on nominating former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for the secretary of state position in favor of someone more Russia-friendly. This allegation appears in an unreleased memo Steele wrote in November 2016.
Shortly after Trump won the election, there were numerous reports that he was considering picking Romney for the job — the two were even photographed together having dinner to discuss the possibility. Steele’s memo, which names “a senior Russian official” as its source, alleges that the Kremlin made contact with Trump “through unspecified channels” and pushed him to nominate someone who would lift Ukraine-related sanctions and would “cooperate on security issues of interest to Russia.”
The businessman Rex Tillerson was ultimately Trump’s pick for the job.
If true, it would make sense that Russia would favor Tillerson over Romney. Romney has made no secret of the fact that he views Russia as an adversary — he referred to the country as the United States’ “No. 1 geopolitical foe” in a 2012 CNN interview when he was running for president — but Tillerson has long had ties with Russia. As chief executive of the oil giant Exxon, Tillerson spearheaded partnerships and projects with Russia that made the foreign power huge profits. One deal he made in 2011 led to the valuation of Russian oil giant Rosneft increasing by $7 billion in five days in 2012.
Tillerson has also been open about his opposition to sanctions against Russia, and in 2013, he was awarded the Order of Friendship, one of Russia’s most prestigious honors for foreigners, by Vladimir Putin himself.
The White House responded to The New Yorker’s request for comment by insisting Romney had never been Trump’s top choice for secretary of state and declined to offer any statement on any communication the president “may have had with Russia on the subject.”