Former secretary of state Rex Tillerson told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Russian President Vladimir Putin out-prepared President Trump during a key meeting in Germany, putting the U.S. leader at a disadvantage during their first series of tête-à-têtes.
The U.S. side anticipated a shorter meeting for exchanging courtesies, but it ballooned into a globe-spanning two-hour-plus session involving deliberations on a variety of geopolitical issues, said committee aides, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Tillerson’s seven-hour closed meeting with the committee.
“We spent a lot of time in the conversation talking about how Putin seized every opportunity to push what he wanted,” a committee aide said. “There was a discrepancy in preparation, and it created an unequal footing.”
Tillerson, whose public remarks about the president have been sparse since his dramatic firing in March 2018, spoke to a bipartisan group of lawmakers and staffers Tuesday at the request of the chairman of the committee, Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.).
Committee aides peppered the former oilman with questions about the 2017 session in Hamburg. Unlike in Helsinki last summer, when Trump met with Putin without advisers present, Tillerson attended the Hamburg meeting, giving him rare insight into the two leaders’ interactions. Experts said the disparity in preparation was unsurprising but risky given Putin’s depth of experience and savvy.
“Putin is a very nimble adversary who’s been at this for 20 years now,” said Andrew Weiss, a Russia scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The Hamburg meeting sounds like it was one of Putin’s wildest dreams: a freewheeling backroom-style conversation with a U.S. president.”
In the past, Trump has downplayed the importance of preparation, saying his gut instinct and ability to read a room are paramount for a successful summit.
“I don’t think I have to prepare very much,” Trump said ahead of his historic first meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last year. “It’s about attitude, it’s about willingness to get things done. So this isn’t a question of preparation, it’s a question of whether or not people want it to happen, and we’ll know that very quickly.”
He said in a series of interviews that he does not need to read extensively because he reaches the right decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.”
Trump said he is skeptical of experts because “they can’t see the forest for the trees.” He believes that when he makes decisions, people see that he instinctively knows the right thing to do: “A lot of people said, ‘Man, he was more accurate than guys who have studied it all the time.’ ”
One day last month, Trump had a visit from a delegation of prominent executives in the oil, steel and retail industries, and one of the executives told Trump that the Chinese were taking advantage of the United States. “He said, ‘I’d like to send you a report,’ ” Trump recalled. “He said, ‘I’d love to be able to send you’ — oh boy, he’s got a lengthy report, hundreds of pages. . . . I said, ‘Do me a favor: Don’t send me a report. Send me, like, three pages.’ ”
Trump said reading long documents is a waste of time because he absorbs the gist of an issue very quickly. “I’m a very efficient guy,” he said. “Now, I could also do it verbally, which is fine. I’d always rather have — I want it short. There’s no reason to do hundreds of pages because I know exactly what it is.”
In a more than six-hour meeting, he told members and staffers that the Trump administration actively avoided confronting Russia about allegations of interference in the election in an effort to develop a solid relationship with the Kremlin, a committee aide told The Daily Beast.
Committee aides said that Tillerson refrained from openly disparaging the president but that his inability to answer certain questions was revealing.Trump values Trump, period. And he believes that what's good for Trump is good for America.
In one exchange, Tillerson said he and the president “shared a common goal: to secure and advance America’s place in the world and to promote and protect American values.”
“Those American values — freedom, democracy, individual liberty and human dignity — are the North Star that guided every action I took at the State Department,” Tillerson said, according to a person in the room.
Upon questioning, Tillerson clarified that although he and the president shared the same goal, they did not share the same “value system.”
When asked to describe Trump’s values, Tillerson said, “I cannot,” the person said.
“Just as matter of fact, he stated that he couldn’t or wouldn’t unpack the president’s values for us,” a committee aide said.
It was not the first time Tillerson declined to defend the president’s values. In 2017, Fox News host Chris Wallace spoke to Tillerson about the deadly violence in Charlottesville, after Trump said “both sides” — white supremacists and the people protesting them — were responsible.
“I don’t believe anyone doubts the American people’s values,” Tillerson said.
“And the president’s values?” Wallace asked.
“The president speaks for himself,” Tillerson said, a response that reportedlyinfuriated Trump.
Trump and Tillerson sparred behind the scenes for months before Trump fired him in a tweet. But their public rapport took a dramatic turn in December when Tillerson told CBS that Trump did not read much and had issued directives that were against the law.
Trump responded in a tweet that Tillerson was “dumb as a rock” and “lazy as hell.”
Rex Tillerson, a man who is “dumb as a rock” and totally ill prepared and ill equipped to be Secretary of State, made up a story (he got fired) that I was out-prepared by Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Hamburg, Germany. I don’t think Putin would agree. Look how the U.S. is doing!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 23, 2019