An uneasy tenure: how Tillerson found himself cut out by Kushner

WASHINGTON, June 27 (Reuters) - In one of the most awkward moments of his time as U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson realized his Mexican counterpart was in Washington only when he walked into a restaurant and found him dining with President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.

On another occasion, neither Tillerson nor Jim Mattis, who was then secretary of defense, knew Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates planned to blockade their regional rival Qatar even though Kushner and another Trump adviser, Steve Bannon, had been told about it at a secret dinner with their governments.

Tillerson recounted the embarrassing incidents in a seven-hour closed-door interview with leaders of the House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee last month.

Trump fired Tillerson in March 2018 after months of friction and on Twitter called him lazy and "dumb as a rock."

Tillerson's testimony, a transcript of which was seen by Reuters House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee, shows how Tillerson's 13-month tenure as secretary of state, one of the shortest ever, was undermined by public disagreements with Trump and a sense that the former ExxonMobil chief executive was being excluded from key discussions.

Tillerson said Trump is undisciplined and does not like to read and that he had to make briefings short and simple.

"I had to adapt to the fact that it wasn't going to be useful to give him something and say this is, you know, this is an article worth reading," Tillerson said.

A recurring theme in the interview was Tillerson’s frustration with Kushner conducting his own diplomacy from the White House, at times without the knowledge of Tillerson or Mattis.

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Trump and Tillerson interact on the world stage
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Trump and Tillerson interact on the world stage
U.S. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confer during a working lunch with African leaders during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (R) attend a working dinner with Latin American leaders in New York, U.S., September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson looks toward President Donald Trump during the 9/11 observance at the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (R) looks toward him during a working dinner with Latin American leaders in New York, U.S., September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
With Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (R) at his side, U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a luncheon with Kuwait's ruler Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 7, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
US President Donald Trump (R) speaks to the press with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) on August 11, 2017, at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Trump said Friday that he was considering options involving the US military as a response to the escalating political crisis in Venezuela. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (R) listens to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (C) during a meeting with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (C), US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif bin Abdulaziz al-Saud take part in a bilateral meeting at a hotel in Riyadh on May 20, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Trump (C) sits with US Secretary of State Rewx Tillerson (R), Vice President Mike Pence (2nd L) and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (L) during a lunch meeting with Argentinian President Mauricio Macri at the White House in Washington, DC, April 27, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson takes off his glasses after delivering a statement on Iran in the Treaty Room of the State Department in Washington, DC, on April 19, 2017. US President Donald Trump's administration has launched a review of the Iran nuclear deal, officials said April 18, branding it a 'failed approach' to the threat posed by the Tehran regime. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 28: (AFP OUT) US President Donald Trump greets Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin (C) and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (R) on his way out after delivering his first address to a joint session of Congress on February 28, 2017 in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Trump's first address to Congress focused on national security, tax and regulatory reform, the economy, and healthcare. (Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo - Pool/Getty Images)
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Tillerson said he had just arrived for dinner at the Washington restaurant when the owner shared the unexpected news that Mexico's then-foreign minister, Luis Videgaray, was at a table near the back in case he wanted to say hello.

Tillerson walked over and found Videgaray with Kushner.

"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,'" Tillerson told the congressional panel.

"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.

 

'IT MAKES ME ANGRY'

The Foreign Affairs Committee's new chairman, Democratic Representative Eliot Engel, asked Tillerson to talk to the panel as part of its oversight of foreign policy, after Democrats won control of the House in November 2018 elections.

In the meeting, Tillerson said there had never been discussion of Kushner's or Trump's business dealings in relation to foreign policy. He emphasized that Trump never asked him to break the law.

Tillerson said he and Mattis learned about the 2017 blockade of Qatar during a joint visit to Australia, which left them scrambling to determine the extent of the crisis and safety of U.S. assets in the Gulf.

He appeared surprised when told during the interview that the blockade was discussed at a private dinner by Kushner, Bannon and leaders of Saudi Arabia and UAE.

"It makes me angry," Tillerson said, "because I didn't have a say. The State Department's views were never expressed."

Tillerson also discussed Kushner's relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his travels to the Middle East without consulting U.S. embassies.

He said he raised the issue of such trips with Kushner, who said he would "try to do better." However, Tillerson said not much changed and that it made his job more difficult.

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Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman
ARCHIVO - En esta fotografía de archivo del 12 de abril de 2018, el príncipe heredero saudí Mohammed bin Salman se prepara para irse tras una ceremonia con el jefe de gobierno español Mariano Rajoy en Madrid, España. (AP Foto/Paul White, archivo)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday Oct. 16, 2018. Pompeo also met on Tuesday with Saudi King Salman over the disappearance and alleged slaying of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, who vanished two weeks ago during a visit to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. (Leah Millis/Pool via AP)
FILE - In this Thursday, June 14, 2018 file photo, President Vladimir Putin, shakes hands with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, during their meeting in Moscow, Russia. (Yuri Kadobnov/Pool via AP)
Spain's King Felipe, left, his wife Queen Letizia, right, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud stand to welcome guests before a lunch at the Royal Palace in Madrid, Thursday, April 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, Pool)
This photo released Monday, April 9, 2018 on the official twitter page of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, shows Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, left, takes a selfie with French President Emmanuel Macron, center, and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, in the King George V Hotel, in Paris, France. (The official twitter page of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri via AP)
A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on September 30, 2018 shows the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah (R), welcoming Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, at the Bayan Palace in Kuwait City. (Photo by Bandar AL-JALOUD / various sources / AFP) / XGTY (Photo credit should read BANDAR AL-JALOUD/AFP/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JUNE 14: Asian Football Confederation President Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al Khalifa, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Al Saud, FIFA President Gianni Infantino, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L-R) during the opening ceremony prior to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at Luzhniki Stadium on June 14, 2018 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Pool/Getty Images)
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Trump's presidency has been dogged by accusations, which he denies, that his campaign colluded with Russia in 2016 as Moscow worked to boost the Republican's chances of winning the White House.

Tillerson described how Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived well prepared for a key meeting in Hamburg in July 2017, but the U.S. side had expected a "fairly short" session at which the two presidents would get acquainted.

The meeting lasted hours, with no one in the room taking notes.

Trump said afterward he believed Putin when the Russian leader denied Moscow had interfered in the election, drawing criticism because U.S. intelligence agencies had determined the opposite.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Kieran Murray and Bill Trott)

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