WASHINGTON – The leaders of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates bypassed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in 2017 when they told Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon, the close advisers to President Trump, of secret plans, Qatar, a critical one American allies in the Middle East to impose a blockade. Mr Tillerson was surprised when the blockade was announced, according to an interview from a congressional committee with Mr Tillerson last month.
Mr. Tillerson, who left the State Department in 2018, said he had no idea that the Saudis had told Mr. Kushner and Mr. Bannon about the blockade until a committee member asked him about it in the interview. "It makes me angry," Tillerson said.
The report shows the extent to which Mr. Kushner, the son-in-law and adviser to Mr. Trump in the Middle East and Mr. Bannon in the first year of managing foreign affairs operations in the most sensitive regions of the world, without informing Mr. Trump's top foreign policy officials and their agencies. In particular, the interview sheds light on the power that Kushner exercises behind the scenes.
One day Tillerson told the congressional committee about a meeting Kushner had with the Mexican foreign minister in a restaurant in Washington without Mr. Tillerson's knowledge. The restaurant owner told Mr. Tillerson about the other two men at the venue, and Mr. Tillerson went to their table.
"You said that you had expressed concerns about this phenomenon with Mr. Kushner, and he said he would do better", said a member of the committee, referring to Mr. Kushner, who was independent of foreign officials Mr. Tillerson worked together. "Did you address it with other key players in the administration or the president himself?" Tillerson said. Kushner maintains close ties Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, two powerful rulers whose policies have devastated the Middle East and led to human rights violations, say critics. The Qatar blockade has lifted the fragile relations that the United States has long maintained in the region – even though Qatar is at odds with the other Gulf states, it is home to the most important US military base in the Middle East.
The New York Times and several other news organizations received a copy of the 143-page record of the interview between members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Mr. Tillerson before the committee published it on early Thursday afternoon. Portions of the transcript were edited at the request of Mr. Tillerson and the State Department.
[Read the transcript of the full interview with Mr. Tillerson.]
Tillerson said in a congressional interview that he and Jim Mattis, the then Secretary of Defense, were both surprised when they first heard about the Qatar blockade on a diplomatic trip, which was launched on June 5 by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to Australia. Mr. Tillerson said he and Mr. Mattis have been making calls to the Middle East.
"At the time, the most productive thing I could do was to ask only all the parties to escalate that," Mr. Tillerson said. "I did not have enough information to know if something really triggered it or an event that was not reported."
This thing, do not escalate, because that's obviously the most dangerous situation at the moment when someone decides that he is calling this thing. "
Mr. Tillerson was also asked why in July 2017, no note maker was present at a meeting between Mr. Trump and President Vladimir V. Putin from Russia in Hamburg, Germany. The absence of an official record of some of Mr Trump's talks with Mr Putin was a continuing controversy during his presidency.
Tillerson said that "the Russians preferred" that no memeber attended the meeting in which he participated with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The American side agreed, he said, because the meeting was only meant to be a short introductory exchange of pleasantries.
Instead, the meeting lasted well over two hours. Mr Tillerson said that Mr Putin was 'very prepared' to discuss a substantive issue that Mr Tillerson did not describe. Mr. Trump was not so prepared, "because we did not expect it to work that way," he said.
Mr. Trump said that the two men also discussed the ongoing US excitement over Russia's interference in the presidential election in 2016, and Putin twice denied that he was involved. He also said that he told Mr. Putin that he believed him.
Mr. Tillerson said he did not remember the President saying so, nor did he see any media reporting that the President took the translator's notes from the meeting.
At dinner in the evening, the two leaders talked again for about an hour without an official copywriting gift. Mr. Tillerson was not present at this event.