WASHINGTON — Saudi and Emirati leaders bypassed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in 2017 when they told Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon, close advisers to President Trump, about secret plans to impose a blockade on Qatar, a critical American ally in the Middle East. Mr. Tillerson was taken by surprise when the blockade was announced, according to a transcript of an interview with Mr. Tillerson last month by a congressional committee.
Mr. Tillerson, who left the State Department in 2018, said he had no knowledge that the Saudis had told Mr. Kushner and Mr. Bannon about the blockade until a committee member asked him about it in the interview. “It makes me angry,” Mr. Tillerson said.
“I didn’t have a say,” he added. “The State Department’s views were never expressed.”
The account highlights the extent to which Mr. Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East adviser, and Mr. Bannon were running foreign policy during the administration’s first year in the world’s most sensitive regions without telling Mr. Trump’s top foreign policy officials and their agencies. The interview especially sheds light on the power wielded behind the scenes by Mr. Kushner.
At one point, Mr. Tillerson told the congressional committee about a meeting that Mr. Kushner had with the foreign minister of Mexico at a restaurant in Washington without Mr. Tillerson’s knowledge. The restaurant owner told Mr. Tillerson about the other two men in the venue, and Mr. Tillerson walked up to their table.
“You said that you raised concerns about this phenomenon with Mr. Kushner and he said he would try to do better,” a committee staff aide said, referring to Mr. Kushner working with foreign officials independently of Mr. Tillerson. “Did you raise it with others, other key players in the administration or the president himself?” Mr. Tillerson said he did.
Mr. Kushner has close ties with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, two powerful rulers whose policies have roiled the Middle East and resulted in human rights atrocities, critics say. The blockade of Qatar overturned delicate relationships the United States had long maintained in the region — though Qatar is at odds with the other Gulf nations, it hosts the main American military base in the Middle East.
The New York Times and several other news organizations obtained a copy of the 143-page transcript of the interview between members of House Foreign Affairs Committee and Mr. Tillerson before the committee released it early Thursday afternoon. Parts of the transcript had been redacted at the request of Mr. Tillerson and the State Department.
[Read the transcript of the full interview with Mr. Tillerson.]
Mr. Tillerson said in the congressional interview that he and Jim Mattis, then the defense secretary, were both taken by surprise when they first heard about the blockade of Qatar, launched by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on June 5, while on a diplomatic trip to Australia. Mr. Tillerson said he and Mr. Mattis scrambled to make calls to the Middle East.
“At that point the most productive thing that I felt I could do given where I was at the time was to just ask all the parties to not escalate this further,” Mr. Tillerson said. “I didn’t have enough information to know if something had really set this off or an event that hadn’t been reported.”
“So at that point I just urged all the parties to be calm, let’s de-escalate this thing, don’t escalate, because that’s obviously the most dangerous situation at the moment is somebody decides they’re going to dial this thing up,” he added.
Mr. Tillerson was also asked why no note-taker was present for a July 2017 meeting between Mr. Trump and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Hamburg, Germany. The lack of any formal record of some of Mr. Trump’s discussions with Mr. Putin has been a continuing controversy during his presidency.
Mr. Tillerson said “the Russians preferred” no note-taker be present at the session, which he attended along with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The American side agreed, he said, because the meeting was expected to be simply a short, introductory exchange of pleasantries.
Instead, the meeting lasted well over two hours. Mr. Tillerson said that Mr. Putin came “very prepared” to discuss a substantive issue that Mr. Tillerson did not describe. Mr. Trump, by contrast, had not engaged in any preparation “because we didn’t expect that’s the way it was going to go,” he said.
Mr. Trump has said that the two men also discussed the ongoing furor in the United States over Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, and Mr. Putin twice denied to him that he was involved.
But Mr. Tillerson said he did not recall those remarks. He said he also did not recall seeing the president take the translator’s notes of the meeting, as some media outlets reported.
At dinner that evening, the two leaders again talked for about an hour without an official note-taker present. Mr. Tillerson was not present for that event.