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Rex Tillerson, on witness stand, gives rare insight into his time as secretary of state

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who rarely speaks about his tenure as America's top diplomat, on Monday described a White House where he was at times contradicted by President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, even as Tillerson was supposed to be overseeing U.S. foreign policy during the first year of the Trump administration.

"It was evident that at times Mr. Kushner was engaging with the same government officials on the same issues I was engaging with them on and that those messages were not consistent," Tillerson said during a rare public appearance.

Tillerson's remarks came on the witness stand Monday in New York, where he testified for about three hours in the federal trial of Thomas Barrack, a billionaire friend of former President Donald Trump accused of unlawfully lobbying on behalf of the United Arab Emirates. 

A White House spokesperson in 2019 defended Kushner, saying "Jared consistently follows proper protocols with [National Security Council] and the State Department and this instance is no different," according to Politico.

Tillerson was questioned about deliberations in 2017 surrounding a planned summit at Camp David, at which Trump hoped to resolve an economic blockade by the UAE and other Gulf monarchies against Qatar. Barrack is accused of working with an Emirati official to undermine plans for the Camp David summit.

Tillerson described the summit as Trump's idea.

"At least that's how it came to me. That he wanted to try and get the parties all together at Camp David," Tillerson said, and he described the discussions around the summit as sensitive.

"You really don't want to have outside parties to have that information," Tillerson said.

An artist's depiction of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) being questioned by federal prosecutor Hiral Mehta (center) as Thomas Barrack (right) watches. Jane Rosenberg

Tillerson is the first member of the Trump administration to testify in the trial of Barrack, an adviser to the 2016 Trump campaign and chair of the presidential inaugural committee. Barrack is charged with acting as an unregistered foreign agent for the UAE, obstruction of justice and making false statements to the FBI about his dealings. Federal prosecutors say that from 2016 to 2018, Barrack sought to advance a UAE "wish list" of foreign policy positions. Tillerson served as secretary of state from February 2017 through March 2018.

Tillerson was questioned earlier than the government anticipated because of a scheduling conflict, according to a court filing. A prosecutor said he flew in on Monday morning for his witness testimony.

He was questioned by a prosecutor for just under an hour, describing in broad terms his relationship with Trump and Barrack, including his first meeting with the then-president elect in December 2016, when he said he was surprised to be offered the job of secretary of state. Tillerson said the invitation came at the end of a Trump Tower briefing in which "we just kind of did a walk around the globe," discussing foreign policy.

He went on to describe that while he was CEO of Exxon, he had briefed several past presidents and vice presidents given his knowledge of foreign officials, but clarified that those conversations never touched on U.S. policy, saying, "I didn't offer any advice."

The defense tried to draw parallel's between Tillerson's time in international business to Barrack's, but Tillerson quickly made clear that while he was the CEO of Exxon, he tried to steer clear of politics. Foreign officials may have asked about what was happening in Washington, but "not as often as you think." He later explained that if officials did ask, that "doesn't mean I would answer."

Once he was confirmed to the post in February 2017, Tillerson said he had hour-long meetings scheduled with Trump every Tuesday and Thursday, as well an "informal standing lunch meeting on Fridays" that also included then-Vice President Mike Pence and Trump's chief of staff.

Tillerson said that he had received a call from Barrack "expressing an interest in serving as an ambassador," but when Tillerson brought it up to Trump, "He did not proactively say, 'Yes, please take a look at Mr. Barrack for this or that role.'"

Tillerson said he did not follow up. 

On cross examination, defense attorney Randall Jackson highlighted Tillerson's career prior to serving as secretary of state, when he was CEO of Exxon.

Jackson and Tillerson ran through several examples of his engagement with the leaders of countries such as Yemen, Qatar and Russia while representing Exxon's interests. Jackson noted that Tillerson knew Russian President Vladimir Putin and Igor Sechin, a right hand man to Putin who is CEO of Russian state oil company Rosneft. 

"You do know that Mr. Putin and Mr. Sechin at some point in their careers had roles in the KGB?" Jackson asked. Tillerson said he was aware of Putin's history, but knew only that Sechin had served in the military.

Tillerson explained that he met Putin in 1996 and acknowledged he was awarded Russia's Order of Friendship while at Exxon. That acquaintance, he said, ended when he left government. "I don't know him anymore," Tillerson told the jury.

Tillerson was also asked if he ever registered as a foreign agent. He replied that he often checked with his lawyers if that was needed for various issues, but was never told he had to do so.

Barrack was charged in July 2021 and has pleaded not guilty. At the time, he was executive chairman of investment firm Colony Capital, which is now known as DigitalBridge. Also charged was a Colony Capital employee named Matthew Grimes, and Rashid Al Malik, an Emirati citizen then living in California. 

Grimes entered not guilty pleas to charges of acting as an unregistered foreign agent. Al Malik, who was also charged with acting as an unregistered foreign agent, has not been located by law enforcement. Prosecutors allege Al Malik was a middleman through whom Barrack and Grimes communicated with UAE officials, seeking their input on Barrack's efforts to sway American foreign policy.

During the first two weeks of Barrack's trial, jurors heard from members of law enforcement and an expert on Gulf region monarchies. The government's presentation has so far revolved around text messages and emails between Barrack and his co-defendants. Jurors have also been shown messages sent by Barrack in 2016 to Trump's daughter, Ivanka, and her husband Jared Kushner pushing for the Trump campaign to hire Paul Manafort, who later served as chair of the campaign for about two months. 

Jurors were also shown messages sent by Barrack to Manafort about a speech then-candidate Trump was preparing to deliver on energy policy.

Jackson also asked Tillerson about a moment when Trump appeared to publicly disagree with his approach to a foreign policy issue. On September 30, 2017, Tillerson said during a press conference in Beijing that the U.S. government had "channels open to Pyongyang," the capital of North Korea.

The next day, Trump tweeted, "I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…"

Tillerson said that he and Trump were actually not in disagreement, but instead playing "good cop bad cop."

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