The furore over whether Vladimir Putin’s government conspired against Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign has taken yet another twist after 10 electoral college members requested a briefing from intelligence agencies about their investigations.
The request comes less than a week before the 538 college members formally vote to appoint Donald Trump as the next President of the United States.
After his victory at the November 8 election, Mr Trump secured 306 delegates to the college giving him a comfortable notional advantage over Mrs Clinton when the members vote on December 19.
While at least one Republican college member has already indicated he will vote against Mr Trump, it is highly unlikely that the President-elect will suffer a wider backlash from his own delegates.
However, delegates of both major political parties have publicly aired their concerns over the extent of Russian interference in the election and are demanding access to classified information from the Central Intelligence Agency and other security channels.
The public imbroglio is likely to intensify after Mr Trump formally announced the chief executive of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson, as the next secretary of state.
“His tenacity, broad experience and deep understanding of geopolitics make him an excellent choice for Secretary of State,” Mr Trump said in a statement on Tuesday.
“He will promote regional stability and focus on the core national security interests of the United States.”
Since Trump insiders last week publicly earmarked Mr Tillerson for the role, the oil businessman has courted controversy over his deep connections to Mr Putin’s regime.
In 2012, Mr Tillerson sealed a lucrative deal that opened the way for ExxonMobil to begin oil drilling in the Arctic Circle.
But Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine in 2014 and the subsequent annexation of the Crimea triggered Western sanctions that have frozen the US oil giant’s investments in the Russian Federation.
Tillerson wants to lift sanctions against Russia
Mr Tillerson’s nomination faces opposition in the US Senate after senior Republican members of the chamber signalled they would block his path to the coveted role.
Florida senator Marco Rubio, who contested the Republican primaries against Mr Trump, flagged his opposition to the nomination in a Twitter post.
Being a "friend of Vladimir" is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState – MR
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) December 11, 2016
Throughout his time at the helm of ExxonMobil, Mr Tillerson has advanced the case for the Obama administration removing trade restrictions on US companies participating in joint ventures with Russian companies.
The ban on US investment in Russia cost ExxonMobil at least $US1 billion in 2014.
According to the Dallas Business Journal, Mr Tillerson told a shareholders’ meeting in 2014 that he did not support the sanctions because they were ‘ineffective’.
“We do not support sanctions, generally, because we don’t find them to be effective unless they are very well implemented comprehensively, and that’s a very hard thing to do,” he told the meeting.
Before he became chief executive of the company, Mr Tillerson spent 15 years developing contacts in the Russian government and is believed to be a close associate of Igor Sechin, a former secret service agent who is reputed to be Mr Putin’s right-hand man.
For these reasons, Mr Tillerson’s diplomatic approach to eastern Europe is likely to attract microscopic attention from the US media and defence experts.
In 2013 Mr Tillerson was awarded the Order of Friendship by Mr Putin – the highest honour that Russia can bestow on foreigners.
Others awarded the honour by Mr Putin include former British spy George Blake, who was a double agent for the KGB, and the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
Tillerson has $US234 million riding on sanctions policy
According to the latest filings made to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Mr Tillerson holds 2.6 million shares in ExxonMobil.
Based on the closing price of $US90.98 for each of the company’s shares on December 12, his holding is worth more than $US234 million.
If the trade sanctions against Russia are removed by the incoming Trump administration, it is reasonable to surmise that Mr Tillerson stands to gain financially from a policy change.
This creates a conflict of interest for the Trump administration that will need to be managed in advance of the President-elect being sworn in on January 20.
College delegates want answers on Russian links to Trump aides
In an open letter to the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, the college members requested details on the findings of investigations into the movements of several Trump advisors during the campaign.
At least two of Mr Trump’s aides visited Moscow during the election, including his foreign policy advisor Carter Page in July.
An investigative report published by Politico in September claimed that Mr Page met with President Putin during his visit.
Mr Page has since denied the claims in a speech he made in Moscow on Monday.
The college delegates also want US intelligence agencies to furnish information on another advisor, Michael Flynn, who has been appointed by Mr Trump as his national security advisor.
In December last year, Mr Flynn flew to Moscow to attend an event organised by the state-owned television station RT, which broadcasts a news service in English.
Mr Flynn was seated next to Mr Putin at the RT event.