For Russia conspiracy theorists, recently ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is a Rorschach test.
He is whatever they want to see.
Tillerson’s nomination last year was proof of a Kremlin conspiracy, these people claimed, and in some cases still claim. But they also say Tillerson’s firing this week is proof of a Kremlin conspiracy.
But having it both ways is a bit too convenient, isn’t it?
Take, for example, Harvard Law professor and cable news pundit Lawrence Tribe, who argues that Tillerson was hired because he is a puppet of Moscow and that he was fired because he is a bad puppet.
“It looks like Russia picked Tillerson to be a Putin puppet, then pushed Trump to fire Tillerson when he proved to be an unreliable puppet. No mystery there,” he claimed this week on social media.
It doesn’t speak well to the reliability of a given theory if all evidence, including contradictory materials, can be twisted in such a way as to serve as proof. Luckily for Tribe, he isn't alone in espousing this one.
House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said on Dec. 12, 2016, that Tillerson was “an oil executive friendly with Vladimir Putin” whose “cozy relationships with the Kremlin" was troubling. She added, “Fawning over Putin is poor preparation for being the top diplomat of the United States of America."
But on Tuesday, she referred to Tillerson’s firing as a, “profoundly disturbing precedent in which standing up for our allies against Russian aggression is grounds for humiliating dismissal.”
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., similarly said during Tillerson’s confirmation, “America needs someone with diplomatic experience leading the State Department, not an oil tycoon whose close ties to Russia and decades spent negotiating Exxon Mobil business deals raise a number of conflict of interest issues.”
Then this week, she said: “Rex Tillerson became the lone Trump administration cabinet official to stand with the United Kingdom in condemning Russia’s nerve agent attack on English soil. Donald Trump’s reaction to Tillerson’s support of a close American ally facing threats from Russia was to fire him."
The always entertaining journalist Kurt Eichenwald is also playing it both ways.
In 2016, for example, he said on social media, “If Trump appoints unqualified Rex Tillerson as Sec of State rather than [Mitt Romney], we have 2 ask if Russia has its own man in the White House."
On Tuesday, however, he tweeted, “By firing Tillerson one day after he publicly stated that Russia behind a WMD attack on British soil, we now have proof Trump is colluding with Putin. I don’t know if he did in the election. But he is doing it now in front of our eyes. He is Kremlin-owned.”
Then there’s MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who has yet to find a Trump conspiracy she won’t embrace.
"It is still not clear how Rex Tillerson ended up being Secretary of State," Maddow said in April 2017. "Particularly because he and Donald Trump had never met before the November election."
As she spoke, a picture flashed on screen, showing Putin shaking hands with Tillerson. The show’s producers then put up a picture of Putin placing a medal on the former Exxon Mobil CEO’s chest.
"How did Rex Tillerson get that job? He must have come very highly recommended," she smirked, "by someone."
On Tuesday, Maddow spent much of the evening winking and nodding at questions about whether Tillerson was fired because of his hard line on Russia.
To be clear, the theory that Tillerson was fired for his comments about Russia is still just a theory. A lot of reporting indicates that his pink slip was in the works long before he said anything about the nerve agent attack. It’s a bit cute arguing both sides here, but it isn’t convincing. We’re being asked to believe that Tillerson’s hiring is proof of a Russian conspiracy and that his firing is also proof of a Russian conspiracy.