Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson claims the State Department was kept in the dark about key U.S. foreign-policy decisions during his time in the Trump administration because the president’s son-in-law had effectively set up his own shadow operation.
Jared Kushner was privately working on strategic partnerships with foreign countries and meeting discreetly with world leaders outside the formal structures of the U.S. government, according to Tillerson, who told the House Foreign Affairs Committee behind closed doors last month that he was left “angry” by one situation in particular. Because Kushner at times went around Tillerson and his staff, the State Department was not able to efficiently manage U.S. diplomacy.
A transcript of the interview obtained by The Daily Beast covers his time working with President Trump and his views on how the administration approached its relationships with officials in countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia.
In one extended portion of the interview, Tillerson was grilled by committee staff about his strained professional relationship with Kushner, Trump’s senior White House adviser. At several points, Trump’s ousted secretary of state vented his frustrations with being repeatedly undercut and left in the dark by Ivanka’s husband.
“One of the challenges I think that everyone had… to learn to deal with was the role, the unique situation with the president’s son-in-law [Kushner] and daughter [Ivanka] being part of the White House advisory team,” Tillerson said, according to the transcript The Daily Beast obtained. “There was not a real clear understanding of the role, responsibilities, authorities… which made it challenging for everyone, I think, in terms of how to deal with activities that might be undertaken by others that were not defined within the national-security process itself.”
When asked for comment on this story, a senior State Department official told The Daily Beast: “Secretary Pompeo and Mr. Kushner have a strong working relationship and coordinate quite closely.”
A representative for Tillerson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
When asked if there was a particularly memorable example of getting caught off-guard by one of Kushner’s secret meetings or conversations, Tillerson recalled that “Mexico was a situation that occurred on a number of occasions.”
The former chairman and CEO of Exxon said that on one ludicrous occasion he had bumped into his Mexican counterpart in Washington, D.C. purely by chance—when the official had come to see Kushner without even informing the State Department that he was in the country.
“The [Mexican] foreign secretary came to town—unbeknownst to me—and I happened to be having a business dinner at a restaurant in town,” Tillerson said. “And the owner of the restaurant, proprietor 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 and in case you want to go by and say hello to him.’ Very innocent on his part.”
So, Tillerson said, he walked over to the table to meet a stunned foreign secretary.
“I could see the color go out of the face of the foreign secretary of Mexico as I very—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,” he said.
According to Tillerson, the Mexican foreign secretary told him he was “operating on the assumption that everything he was talking to Mr. Kushner about had been run through the State Department and that I was fully on board with it.”
Tillerson said the senior official was “rather shocked” to discover that Kushner was essentially running his own shadow State Department.
“Jared consistently follows proper protocols,” said White House spokesman Hogan Gidley. “The alleged dinner to supposedly discuss the blockade never happened, and no one in the White House was involved in the blockade. Moreover, Mr. Kushner’s work with Mexico had led to positive results on trade and other issues.”
The confusion about Kushner’s role began right from the start of Tillerson’s time in government. The former secretary of state said that when he entered office, he knew the president’s son-in-law was a senior adviser to the president but that “no one really described what he was going to be doing.”
This disconnect even continued during major international crises. In the congressional interview, it emerged that Kushner had failed to inform Tillerson and his staff at State that the Gulf Cooperation Council was starting a blockade of Qatar in the spring of 2017.
Tillerson told committee staff that even though he had forged close relationships with officials in the Middle East, he was unaware of the plans for the blockade. “I was surprised,” Tillerson said, adding that he only learned of the news when his adviser passed him a note during a meeting in Australia, which also included former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
“Someone slipped me a message, and it just was a very short note… and I slipped it to Secretary Mattis,” Tillerson said. “We waited for the next scheduled break and then we went out and made some calls to find out what was going on. At the time, I think both Secretary Mattis and I both felt… that someone would have called us and told us.”
Tillerson told the panel that he was forced to manage the fallout of the blockade, working overtime to ask all parties to refrain from escalating tensions. At the same time, though, he said, he was keep tensions in neutral while blindsided. “I didn’t have enough information to know if something had really set this off or an event that hadn’t been reported,” he said.
At one point during the interview, congressional committee staff alerted Tillerson that they had since learned of a private dinner, between Kushner and former Chief of Staff Steve Bannon in which plans of the blockade were communicated to them. The dinner, according to the committee, took place just before a meeting between GCC in May 2017.
Asked of his reaction: “It makes me angry,” Tillerson said. “I didn’t have a say. The State Department’s views were never expressed.”
“The president and I had many conversations about the allegations that were being made about Qatar and how to substantiate those allegations,” Tillerson said. “And because my own early assessment was... I understood what was behind the allegation, but the characterization of it and the actual actions that were behind it were very different from what had been said to others, to the president in particular.”
Tillerson said he understood Kushner’s position was that “the blockading countries had... a good reason to do what they were doing.”
It wasn’t just the Qatar crisis that showed the State Department’s difficulty in maintaining control on foreign policy. Tillerson also said Kushner’s relationship with Saudi Arabia created anxiety within the agency.
According to Tillerson, Kushner worked on a “comprehensive document” with the Saudis in the leadup to President Trump’s visit to the kingdom in the spring of 2017. The economic and defense roadmap laid out a plan for a strategic relationship between Washington and Riyadh, according to Tillerson. The former secretary said he was not originally aware that Kushner and his Saudi counterparts had been working on the joint project.
“As I understood it, Mr. Kushner had started working on sometime back… with the president’s knowledge, and it was all kind of... supposed to culminate in this trip by the president,” Tillerson said, referencing the president’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2017.
Kushner went on to meet with his Saudi counterparts, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, several times in Riyadh.
“On occasion the president’s senior adviser would make trips abroad and usually, you know, kind of was in charge of his own agenda,” Tillerson said, referring to Kushner. “And typically not a lot of coordination with the embassy.”
The Daily Beast previously reported that American embassy staffers in Saudi Arabia have grown increasingly frustrated with Kushner and his team during their visits to the kingdom, claiming that on a recent visit they did not include them in their meetings with the Saudi royal court.
Tillerson said during his interview with congressional staffers that he raised the issue of the White House going around the State Department on these visits with Kushner during his time in the administration. “He [Kushner] said he would try to do better,” Tillerson said. But ultimately, the former secretary of state said, “not much changed.”