In a remarkable glimpse into President Trump’s unconventional way of running the White House and foreign policy, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has described a string of secret meetings, hidden dinners and undisclosed conversations with world leaders conducted by presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner — and concealed from America’s top diplomat.
The secret diplomacy often caught Tillerson unawares as important policy issues favored by Trump and Kushner were being decided, and created a sense of chaos within the White House to observers on the outside.
Tillerson’s comments were contained in a transcript released Thursday of testimony he gave to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in May.
Trump fired Tillerson, via Twitter, on March 13, 2018, and replaced him with then-CIA Director Michael R. Pompeo. Trump described the former Kansas lawmaker as being more on his same “wavelength.”
But the level of dysfunction has rarely been so starkly illustrated as in Tillerson’s under-oath testimony.
In one embarrassing episode, Tillerson said he didn’t even know his Mexican counterpart was in Washington until he walked into a restaurant and discovered Luis Videgaray dining with Kushner. It came during a delicate time in U.S.-Mexican relations, when Videgaray often went around the State Department to capitalize on his friendship with Kushner.
“I walked back,” Tillerson said. “I could see the color go out of the face of the foreign secretary of Mexico.
“I smiled big, and I said: ‘Welcome to Washington.’ And I said: ‘I don’t want to interrupt what y’all are doing.’ I said: ‘Give me a call next time you're coming to town.’ And I left it at that.”
Tillerson said the foreign minister later said he was shocked that the issues that Kushner raised with him had not already been cleared at the State Department.
Tillerson, a former CEO of ExxonMobil, said then-Defense Secretary James N. Mattis was also often cut out of policy discussions, with former advisor Stephen K. Bannon acting alongside Kushner.
In another meeting concealed from the secretary of State, Kushner and Bannon at a private dinner in May 2017 discussed with leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates their plans to place a blockade on neighboring Qatar.
Tillerson, surprised when Saudi Arabia and the UAE announced the blockade some time later, indicated the U.S. would remain neutral, since Qatar is also an important ally. Barely had Tillerson spoken when Trump threw his full support behind Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The tense Persian Gulf standoff continues to this day.
Tillerson told the lawmakers that unclear lines of authority and responsibility in the White House “made it challenging for everyone.”
“When you first came on board,” Tillerson was asked, “what was Mr. Kushner’s role described to you as?”
“No one really described what he was going to be doing,” Tillerson responded.
Tillerson recalled a 1½-inch-thick report Kushner had prepared outlining a complete overhaul of the U.S.-Saudi economic, business and political relationship, with little or no input from, or knowledge of, State Department diplomats.
“It’s the president’s prerogative” to have special advisors, Tillerson testified. “But … it presents special challenges to everyone if others who are trying to effect foreign policy with a country and move the agenda forward are not fully aware of other conversations that are going on that might be causing your counter-party in that country to take certain actions or behave a certain way, and you're not clear as to why, why did they do that.”
Kushner, though his title is senior advisor to the president, was a real estate businessman in his mid-30s with no political or diplomatic experience when he entered the White House.
He is known to have a close personal relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and has shown a willingness to brush aside some of the prince’s most egregious acts, including the bombing of civilians in Yemen and an alleged role in the murder of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Under the Trump administration, and thanks in part to that friendship with Kushner, U.S. ties to Saudi Arabia are closer now than they have been in years.