Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Sunday defended President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, over his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Clearly the CEO of any US company that does business around the world is going to want to be on friendly relationships with the leaders and governments of those countries where they do business. But being friendly doesn’t make you friends,” Gates said in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Gates’ comments come after he and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice both recommended Tillerson for the job. The pair of GOP heavyweights worked in the George W. Bush administration, though Gates continued to lead the Pentagon under President Barack Obama.
Their recommendation has faced scrutiny since Gates and Rice both have business ties to ExxonMobil through their consulting firm.
Tillerson has faced criticism over his relationship with Putin and Russia amid the intelligence community’s finding that Russian hackers stole Democratic emails in a bid to influence the US election.
But Gates said Tillerson’s business relationship with Putin is being mistaken for a close personal friendship.
“After all, if you wanted to show pictures, I hoisted a glass of vodka more than one time with the head of the KGB and it looked like it was friendly if you’d taken a photograph of it. But I can guarantee you, we weren’t friends. We were adversaries,” Gates said.
“But in the course of doing business, you at least maintain the pleasantries. You can’t be at each other’s throats 24/7,” Gates said. “So I think mistaking a picture of somebody lifting a champagne glass or shaking hands with somebody, confusing that with being friends or being closely associated other than in a business sense, I think is a mistake. I think it’s a false narrative.”