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Tillerson to Kushner: We’ve Got to Stop Meeting Like This

Former U.S. secretary of state’s testimony reveals Jared Kushner’s omnipresent, perhaps unprecedented, role in the Trump administration.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Foreign Policy illustration/JONATHAN ERNST/AFP/Getty Images

Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pulled back the veil on the dysfunctional inner workings of the Trump administration’s foreign policy in newly released testimony, highlighting what some experts described as the unprecedented behind-the-scenes role of President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. 

In the transcript of his recent conversation with the House Foreign Affairs Committee released on Thursday, Tillerson recounted how Kushner repeatedly shut him out of meetings and policy deliberations. In one instance raised by a committee staffer, Tillerson and then-Defense Secretary James Mattis were apparently caught completely off guard by Kushner having advance knowledge of a Saudi Arabia-led blockade on neighboring Qatar that plunged the region into crisis. (The former secretary of state did not confirm or deny Kushner’s apparent advance knowledge raised by the committee staffer.)

The testimony from Tillerson, whom Trump fired in a tweet in March 2018, gives striking first-hand insight into the influential and ill-defined role Kushner plays as a senior adviser at the White House. Kushner has flitted across the federal government to craft Trump’s Israel-Palestine peace plan, help redo the North American Free Trade Agreement, and insert himself into domestic policy issues like government shutdown negotiations and criminal justice reform.

“It’s unprecedented. … There’s nothing that Jared isn’t touching,” said Nancy McEldowney, a former senior U.S. diplomat who left the State Department in June 2017. “He crisscrosses substantive and bureaucratic boundaries,” said McEldowney, now an advisor at Foreign Policy for America, a nonprofit advocacy group. 

In one illustrative example, Tillerson stumbled onto Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray dining in a Washington restaurant with Kushner, caught unaware the foreign minister was even in town. “I could see the color go out of the face of the foreign secretary of Mexico,” Tillerson recounted as he approached the men. “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 was asked by a committee aide about a dinner between Kushner and then-White House strategist Steve Bannon with the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in May 2017, in which the foreign leaders outlined their plan to impose an economic blockade on Qatar. Tillerson said he had no idea of the dinner before this. “It makes me angry,” he said. “Because I didn’t have a say. The State Department’s views were never expressed.”

Neither the White House nor the State Department responded to request for comment.

Many past presidents have relied on senior White House aides to oversee top policy issues, but few, if any, had such an expansive portfolio as Kushner—perhaps none with such little experience beyond familial ties, and none in such an undisciplined manner, some experts say. 

Kushner, 38, has served as a senior advisor to Trump along with his wife, Trump’s daughter Ivanka, since the first days of the administration. Before joining the White House, Kushner ran his father’s real estate company and had no prior diplomatic or political experience.

“While it is true that a number of individuals have played expansive roles in past administrations, there was always knowledge of and a process for what they were doing,” McEldowney said. 

“You could make the argument this is similar to the way Henry Kissinger, when he was national security advisor, helped President [Richard] Nixon conduct foreign policy very directly,” said Thomas Countryman, a former senior U.S. diplomat who spent 35 years in the State Department. “But at least Kissinger was … somebody who had real experience in foreign policy and not someone who was a marginally successful real estate investor.”

Kushner’s prominent foreign-policy role in the administration is on display and under scrutiny this week as the president’s son-in-law unveiled the economic portion of his Middle East peace plan at a workshop in Bahrain on Tuesday. The administration is proposing $50 billion worth of investment projects over the next decade and is seeking support from regional allies.

Critics are skeptical of the proposal, which is seen as light on details and ducking political questions fundamental to the peace process. The Palestinian Authority boycotted the Bahrain conference, and Palestinian leaders have already rejected Kushner’s economic plan.

In the released testimony, the former secretary of state denied any indication that the business interests of Trump or his family were relevant factors in his decision-making.

But Tillerson also said he wasn’t told that the Kushner family had sought Qatari help refinancing a property they owned, learning only after media reports on the financial ties. The family’s effort came at the same time as Jared Kushner’s presence behind the scenes during the Qatar blockade, which Tillerson also indicated ignorance on.

“Your question assumes that I was aware that he was involved in decisions around Qatar,” Tillerson said. “I’m unaware of that.” 

Tillerson’s conversations also illuminated other aspects of dysfunction within the administration, including on issues of staffing and the president’s own preferences. 

The former secretary of state said Russian President Vladimir Putin out-prepared Trump for a meeting between the two leaders in Hamburg, Germany, in 2017. “We didn’t undertake that kind of preparation for the president, because we didn’t expect that that’s the way it was going to go now,” Tillerson said.

Per Tillerson’s account, the vetting process for senior State Department positions was complicated when the White House vetoed candidates for reasons the former secretary saw as insufficient—such as support for candidates other than Trump.

“If people signed the ‘Never Trump’ letter, that would oftentimes disqualify them,” Tillerson said. “If they had tweeted something or retweeted something that the White House office thought was inappropriate, then that might disqualify them. If they had a spouse that might have supported the other candidate, that would disqualify them.”

Asked about the State Department halting of daily press briefings—agencies across the government have pared down or entirely stopped press briefings under Trump—Tillerson denied any White House involvement in the decision.

Tillerson also described how he adapted to briefing the president, who he previously described as “pretty undisciplined” and difficult to persuade in a December 2018 interview, nine months after he was fired by the White House. In the released testimony, the former secretary of state reaffirmed his description of a president who “doesn’t like to read things” and emphasized concision in his efforts to keep the commander in chief informed.

Thomas Wright, a scholar on foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, called the transcript of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s interview with Tillerson a “significant document” that “confirms suspicions about dysfunctions in Trump’s foreign policy.”

“If there was anything that said, ‘It’s better than it looks,’ that would be new,” said Wright. “But that was not [in the transcript]. It was really, ‘It’s as bad or worse than you think.’”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Maya Gandhi is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MDGANDHI

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