News broke on Tuesday that Rex Tillerson had returned to Washington to speak in secret to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a move that certainly piqued curiosity not just about the meeting but also about its clandestine nature. Was Donald Trump’s former Secretary of State spilling the beans on Russia collusion? Did he know where the bodies were buried, figuratively speaking — or maybe literally speaking? Was impeachment around the corner?
No, not really, but that’s not entirely good news for Trump either. Both CNN and the Washington Post report that the biggest takeaway from Tillerson’s testimony is that Trump’s lack of preparation allowed Vladimir Putin to get the upper hand at their first meeting in Hamburg:
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.”
If that’s all Tillerson said, then … that’s not much, at least from a partisan-warfare perspective. The Hamburg meeting was less consequential to Trump than the later meeting in Helsinki, which Trump booted by embracing Putin’s denials over the conclusions of American intelligence. Tillerson didn’t participate in the Helsinki meeting, so the committee couldn’t pick his brain about the issues that summit raised. They are currently attempting to subpoena the notes of the translators, but the fears of secret agreements have long since abated in the nothingness that followed Helsinki anyway.
It’s not exactly news that Putin would be better prepared to exploit a meeting, or that Trump might not have seen the potential dangers of allowing it to expand without preparation:
“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.”
This is a good reason why the committee wanted to follow up on Hamburg, as well as Helsinki. It follows the traditional role of the Foreign Affairs panels, collecting perspective on diplomatic relations and strategic positioning. In fact, it’s so much business as usual that one has to wonder why Tillerson’s appearance required secrecy in the first place. It’s hardly juicy gossip, especially since Tillerson also apparently debunked the idea that Trump is a secret Russian stooge, according to CNN’s sources:
One House Foreign Affairs Committee Republican aide called for Democrats to release the transcript to clarify the meeting’s “tone and facts” following some skewed media depictions, as “Tillerson’s testimony best speaks for itself.”
“Contrary to media reports, Secretary Tillerson made clear that 2016 Russian election interference was raised clearly at the highest levels with Vladimir Putin and the Russian government,” the Republican aide said. “Regarding Kushner, every single administration is entitled to choose and seek counsel from their own advisers.”
But the Democratic aide told CNN that Tillerson will be able to review the transcript before any of it is made public “per an agreement with Secretary Tillerson.”
“Our Republican colleagues were aware of this arrangement prior to yesterday’s interview,” the aide added.
The Post’s sources also noted that Tillerson credited Trump with having America’s interests at the forefront of his foreign policy. Both news reports also mention Tillerson’s observation of naiveté from Trump and Jared Kushner on foreign policy, which is hardly news either. Tillerson’s clandestine testimony must not have contained any bombshells for these to be the big leak-driven takeaways.
Nevertheless, Trump made sure to get in his response after the stories broke this morning:
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
This is one tweet that Trump should have rethought before hitting the “send” button. If Tillerson wanted to be vindictive in his testimony, it certainly doesn’t appear that he succeeded. As for being “dumb as a rock” and “ill equipped to be Secretary of State,” wouldn’t that reflect more on the man who hired him to that job, and then kept him around for a full year? And on the man who promoted Tillerson for the position with these statements:
>@realDonaldTrump on Tillerson:
"He will be a star!"
"vast experience at dealing successfully w/ all types of foreign gov't"
"one of truly great business leaders of world"
"world class player/dealmaker"
"dumb as a rock/totally ill prepared & ill equipped to be Sec of State" pic.twitter.com/TbO1ucadkc
— Jeryl Bier (@JerylBier) May 23, 2019
Sometimes it’s best to let things speak for themselves.