In newly disclosed testimony, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson said President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, operated independently with powerful leaders around the world without coordination with the State Department, leaving Tillerson out of the loop and in the dark on emerging U.S. policies and simmering geopolitical crises.
In a transcript of his testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Tillerson also described the challenge of briefing a president who does not read briefing papers and often got distracted by peripheral topics, noting he had to keep his message short and focus on a single topic.
“I learned to be much more concise with what I wanted to bring in front of him,” Tillerson told the House panel during a seven-hour session in May.
He stood by his previous characterization that Trump does not dive deep into details and said he learned not to give the president articles or long memos. “That’s just not what he was going to do,” he said.
The Washington Post and other news outlets received an advance copy of the redacted transcript before it was published by the committee Thursday.
On several occasions, Tillerson said he was blindsided by Kushner’s discussions with world leaders.
In one instance, Tillerson said he learned that Kushner was meeting with Mexico’s foreign secretary, Luis Videgaray, because he happened to be in the same Washington restaurant while the two men hashed out a “fairly comprehensive plan of action” that Tillerson didn’t know about.
“The owner of the restaurant . . . came around and said, “Oh, Mr. Secretary, you might be interested to know the foreign secretary of Mexico is seated at a table near the back in case you want to go by and say hello to him,” Tillerson said. “And so I did.”
Tillerson said he saw the “color go out of the face” of the foreign secretary as he walked into the room. “I said: Welcome to Washington. . . . Give me a call next time you’re coming to town.”
In another instance, Tillerson explained in detail being stunned by the 2017 Persian Gulf crisis in which key Arab allies severed ties with Qatar, another key U.S. ally. He said he was in Australia at the time with then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and both were caught off guard.
“I was surprised,” he said.
He also said he was not aware of meetings that had been occurring between Arab leaders and Kushner, including a private huddle May 20, 2017, between Kushner, Trump’s then-adviser Stephen K. Bannon and the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. During the meeting, Arab leaders discussed their intention to impose a blockade on Qatar, though the White House later denied prior knowledge of the June 5 closure.
“What’s your reaction to a meeting of that sort having taken place without your knowledge?” Tillerson was asked by committee staff.
“It makes me angry,” Tillerson said. “Because I didn’t have a say. The State Department’s views were never expressed.”
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said that such a gathering to “discuss the blockade never happened, and neither Jared, nor anyone in the White House, was involved in the blockade.”
“The White House operated under the belief the secretary of state at the time, Mr. Tillerson, would and should know what his own team was working on,” Gidley added.
Gidley also credited Kushner’s diplomacy with the Mexican government, saying it “ultimately led” to the negotiation of a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada, though the agreement also involved other senior U.S. officials and still needs to be approved by Congress.
“Jared consistently follows proper protocols with NSC and the State Department, and this instance is no different,” Gidley said.
Tillerson said he asked Kushner to stop making trips overseas without consulting with the embassy or the State Department.
“On occasion the president’s senior adviser would make trips abroad and . . . was in charge of his own agenda,” he said.
When he raised the issue, Kushner said he “would try to do better,” Tillerson recalled. But “not much changed,” the former secretary of state said, making it difficult because everyone was not working from the “same playbook.”
Tillerson declined to answer questions about whether he expressed the sentiment that the president was a “moron,” as publicly reported.
“We really should move on,” Tillerson attorney Reg Brown said when asked about the report. Asked again, Brown said, “We’re ready to move on.”
Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil chief executive who tried but failed to change a number of processes at the State Department, said he was startled that many career diplomats had no idea what their authority was — or what they were supposed to be doing.
“I thought: This is nuts. I mean, this is crazy. You couldn’t run a corner gas station that way,” he said.
Tillerson also spoke about a two-hour meeting he had with Russian President Vladimir Putin about bilateral challenges, including election interference. Tillerson told Putin that Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election created “huge challenges for us here in Washington” in improving U.S. relations with Russia.
Tillerson said no one from the White House gave him any guidance on how to handle the topic — nor did they talk about it with him after the meeting.
He said Putin denied any Russian interference, a response Tillerson didn’t believe.
“I wasn’t expecting mea culpas. I wasn’t expecting him to prostrate himself and say, you got me. But it was important,” he said.
“I’ve known this guy a long time; I’ve dealt with him a long time; and one thing I know he respects is people speaking the truth to him,” he said. “Whether he acknowledges that truth or not, that’s his choice, but he respects people who speak the truth to him and that they stick with it. That’s what he respects.”
During Tillerson’s tenure, the number of State Department press briefings was sharply curtailed, and fewer reporters were allowed to travel with him on his plane, a point of contention that continues under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Tillerson said it was his decision to reduce access to the news media at the agency.
“No,” he responded, when asked whether the White House had any role or reaction to it.
Tillerson, who struggled to fill senior positions in the department, said he was frustrated that he could not pick his top people, and that he was hampered by White House rules prohibiting nominees from taking positions if they had tweeted something negative about the president or signed a “Never Trump” letter. “It never did work smoothly,” he said.
“And that spread pretty widely within town. People began to understand that. And the unfortunate effect of that is a lot of people then contacted me and said: ‘Hey . . . you can take my name off the list of consideration.’ It discouraged them from being considered,” he said.