Tillerson’s Russia ties lampooned by SNL, former Defense Secretary Gates defends Trump’s pick

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NEW YORK —  After being criticized by the President-elect as “mean-spirited” and “not very good,” Alec Baldwin and his impersonation of Donald Trump returned on “Saturday Night Live” this week.

In the first sketch of the show, Baldwin as Donald Trump gets a surprise holiday visitor who enters through the chimney. It turns out to be a shirtless Russian President Vladimir Putin who is carrying a sack full of presents. The sketch lampooned the situation following an assessment by the US intelligence over Russia’s election-related hacking that suggested Putin was involved.

Later, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, played by John Goodman, walks into the office and warmly greets Putin as “Pooty!” The oil executive and the Russian president exchange an exuberant handshake, and proceed to make business plans regarding what they hope to do after sanctions are lifted on Russia. So far, Trump has not tweeted his take on the latest SNL episode as he did two weeks ago.

Despite the criticism, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates defended Tillerson over his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin Sunday.

“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” Sunday.

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.”