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.
“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.).
“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.
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.
In another rebuttal to Tillerson, Trump noted that his replacement Mike Pompeo is “doing a great job” and “agrees with my values.”
“Such a positive difference!” Trump added.
A senior administration official contested that assertion, saying that “Jared, the White House, and the NSC [National Security Council] did coordinate with the State Department. The problem was Rex Tillerson couldn’t figure out how to coordinate with the State Department.”
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.