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.”
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 other officials 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.”
Tillerson told the committee that he believed there was more the United States needed to do to counter Russia on the global stage, said a person who was in the room.
Committee aides said that Tillerson refrained from openly disparaging the president but that his inability to answer certain questions was revealing.
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.
Committee staffers were interested in how Middle East foreign policy was made, asking detailed questions about Kushner and Elliott Broidy, a top fundraiser and ally of Trump whose office was raided by federal investigators last year in a search for records about his dealings with Trump administration associates. Broidy has ties with the United Arab Emirates, a Persian Gulf ally that has worked closely with Kushner and has aligned itself with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.