Rex Tillerson Testifies
The former secretary of state says “it was evident” Jared Kushner was engaging in freelance foreign policy during the Trump Administration
Rex Tillerson during his January 11, 2017 confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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As I said last week, the Tom Barrack trial could shed light on what was possibly the most corrupt, self-dealing piece of the Trump presidency’s foreign policy in the Middle East—that is, the administration’s response to the 2017 blockade of Qatar. The trial’s look into the blockade involves everyone from former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Jared Kushner (whose name is on the witness list for the government, and whose testimony, in my opinion, the defense would be crazy not to commandeer).
Tillerson was brought in yesterday as a government witness and was asked about Barrack (whom he could barely remember) and also, thankfully, about Kushner (whom he definitely did remember).
Here’s an exchange between Barrack defense attorney Randall Jackson and Tillerson about Kushner’s foreign policy dealings:
JACKSON: Would you agree with the idea that there were aspects of what Mr. Kushner engaged in in terms of foreign policy that w[ere] outside of the scope of what you were working on?
TILLERSON: Well, that -- I'm not sure how to answer that other than to say that 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 also described learning that, in May of 2017, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt had blockaded Qatar (home to the U.S. airbase in the region) and that he and Kushner were most definitely not on the same page as Kushner about this:
JACKSON: One of the things that you said to the prosecutors is that Trump believed that the claim that Qatar was sponsoring terrorism was true and you believed that it was not true, right?
TILLERSON: At the time, yes.
JACKSON: Now I am correct that there were other people within the White House who were expressing differing opinions on how this blockade should be handled, right?
TILLERSON: You mean within the White House there were differing opinions?
JACKSON: Yes, sir.
JACKSON: One of the people who expressed an opinion that had some differences from yours was Jared Kushner, correct?
TILLERSON: I know he took that view[.] I don't remember if he actually expressed it publicly or not.
(No mention yet of the fact that Kushner might have been pissed at Qatar because the Qataris had just rejected Kushner’s dad, who wanted them to bail him out of a $1.4 billion loan on the New York building 666 Fifth Avenue. I am hoping, probably in vain, that this will come up later…)
What I want to learn as the trial unfolds is the narrative of how Kushner elbowed out Barrack (and Tillerson) as potential conduits between the Gulf leaders and Trump, and how he replaced them with himself—someone who senior intelligence agencies did not think suitable to have a security clearance, not least because of his family’s financial vulnerabilities. We all know now how the story with MBS played out: he’s now Kushner’s big investor. You’d think that would be a really important narrative for the defense.
I can’t wait to find out.
But just because Kushner was unsuitable for the role doesn’t mean that Barrack, who was not officially part of the administration, did not do some really dumb things.
To me, the most important line in last week’s testimony is this September 6, 2016 text exchange between Barrack and Ziad Ghandour, a Lebanese businessman and race car driver:
GHANDOUR: Every time I turn the TV on, I see you. Are you sure it's Donald running and not you?
BARRACK: I am running for the money…
What founder and executive chairman of a public company (which Barrack’s investment firm, Colony Capital, was at the time) puts that sort of thing down in writing? You don’t need to go to Harvard Business School to know that’s just a really stupid thing to do.
But Barrack’s Achilles heel, it would seem from all the text exchanges, is that he’s a bit like a peacock. According to the texts being read into the court record, it seems he’s used to flaunting his vast rolodex and success as part of his charm arsenal; it may partly be vanity, but it’s also kind of a weapon for him. You can see that he’s the sort of guy many power players think of as their best friend—because he gives the right gifts, he’s got the right homes, etc. However, as effective as that charm may have been for him historically in drumming up business, it may have been his undoing when he got too close to the Trump presidency. His tight-knit associations with the bigwigs he spent his career cultivating came back to bite him. And not just the foreign ones.
For example: One of the people Barrack openly flaunted as his friend during the Trump years was casino mogul (and fellow Trump crony) Steve Wynn, who was briefly finance chair of the RNC.
During the inauguration, Barrack, who was Trump’s inaugural chair, put down in writing that he wanted a Wynn act—the ShowStoppers—to perform at his own dinner, the Chairman’s dinner. Barrack even moved the event to a bigger venue to accommodate them. (You’ll recall the Trump inauguration was the most expensive ever, at over $100 million, and that there was a settlement of $750,000 paid to the city Washington, D.C. stemming from charges of self-dealing by the Trump Organization, the Trump International Hotel in D.C., and the Inaugural Committee itself.)
It was reported last week, that ironically, like Barrack, Wynn is also headed to trial for allegedly lobbying for a foreign country (in his case, China) without registering as a foreign agent. Wynn has disputed the charges against him. But one can’t help thinking that the public alliance between Barrack and Wynn isn’t particularly helpful to either man right now.
Barrack’s generosity to his friends has gotten him into trouble before in the political arena. I was reminded of this when the name “Ted Elkin” appeared in the transcripts of the trial last Friday. Elkin was a co-passenger on Barrack’s plane to Morocco in 2016, and texts read into the court record depict Elkin hanging around the hotel there, waiting on Barrack, who was off cycling with Sheikh Tahnoun, the UAE’s national security advisor.
Elkin, as some may recall, had been Barrack’s chauffeur back in the early 1980s.
In 1982, Barrack gave Elkin—a poor immigrant, then not on the Colony payroll—a loan to buy a house. That house belonged to Edwin Meese, who was then President Reagan’s White House counsel, and it had lingered on the market for 20 months before Elkin bought it.
It emerged during Meese’s 1984 confirmation hearings to become Attorney General that Barrack had given Elkin the loan to the buy the house just two weeks before flying to D.C. to discuss his own position in the Reagan administration. Interesting timing, as Barrack had become deputy undersecretary for the Interior shortly after the loan.
Barrack insisted Meese knew nothing of the role he had played in the home purchase, and Meese went on to become Attorney General.
Barrack, who’d been offered a job at the Commerce Department, sensibly left town and went back to real estate.
A source who worked alongside Barrack in D.C. in the 80s says Barrack vowed he’d never to return the world of DC politics after that.
Maybe Barrack should have stuck to his guns on that.