(Bloomberg) -- Former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testified at a criminal trial about the Trump administration’s seemingly chaotic foreign policy while leveling a veiled criticism at Jared Kushner.
Tillerson appeared Monday as a prosecution witness in the trial of Tom Barrack, a longtime friend of former President Donald Trump, on charges that he acted as an unregistered agent of the United Arab Emirates. On the stand, Tillerson said Trump tweeted out statements about North Korea contrary to his own while presidential son-in-law Kushner pursued his own contacts with foreign governments.
“It was evident at times that Mr. Kushner was engaging with the same government officials that I was engaging with them on, and sometimes those messages were not consistent,” Tillerson told jurors Monday in federal court in Brooklyn, New York.
Tillerson’s clashes with Trump and Kushner have been heavily recounted in several books about the administration, though the former secretary of state has himself made few public comments since he was fired by a presidential tweet in March 2018.
It wasn’t entirely clear how effective Tillerson’s testimony was in supporting the government’s allegations that Barrack sought to influence US policy on behalf of the UAE, serving as a back channel to Trump’s campaign and White House policy. Tillerson said he was unaware of any actions that the Colony Capital LLC founder took on behalf of the UAE and spoke only in general terms about the possibility that Barrack shared information about White House discussions.
“You really don’t want outside parties to have the information and try to use it to their advantage,” Tillerson said. “The US needs to retain the capacity to deliberate and come to a conclusion and also change its position as events change.”
Earlier in the day, prosecutors showed a November 2016 email in which the UAE ambassador to the US asked Barrack who Trump would appoint as secretaries of state and defense, Central Intelligence Agency director and national security adviser.
“We’re working on it in real time,” Barrack replied. “I have our regional interest in high profile.”
Tillerson was asked by prosecutor Hiral Mehta if he’d ever shared such information with any foreign government officials. Tillerson said he did not.
Tillerson, who joined the administration after serving as chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp., took the stand looking deeply tanned and sporting a mustache he didn’t have in office.
Under questioning by the prosecution, Tillerson recounted how he got hired after meeting Trump for an hour in December 2016 at Trump Tower. “When this opportunity came up, I just really felt like it was my time to serve my country,” Tillerson said. He testified he met with Trump in the Oval office twice a week and regularly lunched with the president.
Barrack has argued that he offered the administration advice based on his long experience doing business in the Middle East and had no ulterior motive in doing so. He claims the positions he advocated were his own and not those of the UAE.
On cross-examination, defense lawyer Randall Jackson pointed out that Tillerson had several meetings with foreign leaders as Exxon CEO and tried to suggest his conduct as a private businessman had been substantially the same as Barrack’s.
Jackson asked if Tillerson was under the “direction and control” of those leaders with whom he met as the oil company’s boss.
“We didn’t adopt any of their views,” Tillerson answered. “We had our own views. We at all times represent our own views, nobody else’s.”
He added, though, that he even consulted with lawyers when he was Exxon CEO about whether he needed to register with the US as foreign agent because of his interactions with foreign governments. He said the lawyers told him it wasn’t necessary.
Tillerson testified that he first met Barrack in early 2017, just before the inauguration. He also testified that as secretary of state it was important for him to understand the background of those with whom he was meeting. “If someone is representing a foreign country, you need to know where is this message coming from,” he said.
Prosecutors have also said they plan to call former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster as a witness. McMaster clashed with Trump as well and was fired around the same time as Tillerson.
The case is US v. Al Malik Alshahhi, 21-cr-00371, US District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).
(Updates with emails from UAE official beginning in seventh paragraph.)
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